002 - From IA to AI with Adam Polansky

On this episode I sit down with the one and only Adam Polansky. Colleague, friend, and walking data base of all things UX, it was a great and wide spreading conversation.

Adam discusses his journey into design, and how information architecture and product design have evolved over the years. We discuss how designers can get a seat at "the table" and how as technology changes, we must stay true to our ethics.

To follow the sage words of Adam, you can find him on twitter or linkedin.

Adam also mentioned a few books, they are:

Future Ethics by Cennyyd Bowles

Information Architecture: for Web and Beyond by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville

Photo credit: David Fiorito

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Check out the full transcript below:

Adam: I mentioned before that people were thinking of the internet as a channel. It was beginning to differentiate itself about that time that it wasn't because it was persistent, it wasn't like a print ad that just shot out there once or even direct mail that you put out there and if you got a two percent take rate, you had a party. This thing was was uh persistent. It was out there all the time and people began to see the value and the importance of that even if it was from a marketing standpoint. The fact that it was persistent. He said, this is something we need to pay more attention to.

Tony: Howdy friends. Welcome to the XD podcast. I'm Tony Daussat. If you caught the first episode and you're returning, thank you so much. If this is your first time joining us on the podcast, listen, I'm in to you. Thank you. I really appreciate you forfeiting your ears for this experiment that I'm on. This is my first guest of the podcast, and in this interview I'm talking with Adam Polanski and if you're in the DFW area, you know this guy. He is a wealth of knowledge and is just a great guy. I'm honored to call him a friend and a colleague. And without further ado, I think we should just jump right into the goods.

Okay. So first of all, thank you so much Mr. Adam Polanski for coming here. You're the man, the myth, the legend, and uh, I think we should start with, uh just a little bit of background about you. Um like a little resume hits, how you got to where you are, etc...

Adam: Sure. So the, the reader's digest version of, of uh, how I got here, uh, starts out with having an interest in design from a very young age, uh, art architecture, theater, history, uh, all that kind of stuff. And uh, my first job, uh, in the space was as a commercial illustrator and this was before computers, so I had to actually draw and I worked mostly on print ads and that kind of stuff. And then things kind of turned in a few other directions and I had a number of jobs that, that covered everything from being in the military, uh, being a, uh, working on construction sites, working as a retail manager, working in restaurants, working in the printing biz- the printing industry, both newsprint and cut sheet. Um, and at one point I was, I was looking for work and came to a point where I had been given an offer to go to work for a large ad agency, but the job was very, very minor.

And the salary that came with it was about the best I could expect those in those days. And my wife challenged me and said, okay, here's the deal... You can take this job and we're going to start a family or we will figure out a way for you to finish university and we'll do that instead. But you got to choose now. One time, good deal. And my inner grownup who shows up from time to time said, yeah, probably ought to take the school thing. So I went back and finished a degree - a couple of degrees - in business. And as I graduated, these little web shops were cropping up and through a connection I was introduced to a guy who owned a small web boutique and we visited and he really liked me and wanted to hire me. We agreed on a salary that was well above what I would have got had I taken that job before going to school-

Tony: Look at that.

Adam: And I had no idea what I was going to do there. The only real thing I had going for me at the time, is that I had, um, I had a modem and could surf the internet from home. That was about my only qualification. I really, everybody was learning at that point, this was 1997 - html wasn't even a thing two years before that. And some people had begin to think of the web as something more than just a way for academics to communicate, but as a way to do marketing and as a way to build a brand, uh, and, and began extending at the time extending the web as a new channel, tv, radio, print web. That's not exactly appropriate. It's not exactly right. But it was happening about that time and so I was able to get in at an early point, uh, that company was acquired along with several other small companies to become a really big company that then became no company.

So I road that one all the way up and all the way down. It was a company here in Dallas called Rare Media and uh I contracted for a couple of years after that. But it was during that time with Rare that they had the first information architecture conference and I was fortunate enough to get to go and I met all these folks who were looking for a little external validation for what they did, you know, here's what I do and I'm an information architect. Well me too. Here's what I do. And yeah, we do the same kinds of things. And we found that a community was born that year. It was 20 years ago, the 20th year - at the 20th meeting of that community is this year and I'm fortunate to be the co-chair of the conference.

Getting back on track- I contracted after that for a bit and then went to work at Travelocity, which was at the time part of Sabre and I spent nine years there. I started as an information architect and it was really great because it didn't have to explain what that was when I interviewed. They had a better handle on that than a lot of places and by the time I left I was the UX Director. A few months after I left there that I had the opportunity to come here to Bottle Rocket and, and uh or come to Bottle Rocket where I've been for the last six years and really, really enjoying what I do. And feeling like I'm in a very good place to do what we do. In terms of its culture, in terms of our approach to the work, in terms of how the whole company approaches user experience. Um, I'm still kind of on my work honeymoon six years later.

Tony: When you talk about when you first started, it was a web agency, a web design agency? What was your title?

Adam: I didn't have one. I was, I was, I was kind of a handy guy to have around that was, that was the best thing I could come up with. Um, I spent a couple years there doing what we now call information architecture, but we didn't have a name for it then, uh, it wasn't until a couple of years later that, that Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville wrote a book with a polar bear on it and then we had a title. Um, and uh, I, I was, I did a lot of stuff. I was also at times our, our office manager, I was involved in business development, uh payroll, bill collecting and, and issuing uh - I did a lot of stuff when we were fairly, when we were this small agency. And then when we were acquired and became this part of a larger apparatus, I, I still did some of those things while it all got handed off.

And then they came to me with a list and said, these are the different - It's time to pick a title. It's time to pick a horse and ride it. And they gave me a list of different positions, many of which were vice president of something or other, but I, I wasn't real keen on that, first of all because we had tons of vice presidents. Everybody was a vice president of something, but also on that list was information architect. Which had only just recently become a characterized as a thing and that's really what I'd been doing. It was really where I had the most fun. Even though organizationally it was the lowest thing on the list, uh, but it was really where I felt like I belonged and what I ought to be doing. So I chose that and was fortunate enough to be able to help build that practice, uh, within the company.

Tony: When did the term information architect sort of transition into user experience designer?

Adam: Oh gosh, I probably can't put too fine a point on it, but purposes of a nice round number, I'd say maybe 10, 10, 12 years ago.

Tony: What was, what was happening during that time as far as companies paying more attention to the experience of their digital products or things like that- when did to go from the hired hand that made pretty things to really thinking about the customer?

Adam: I think there were, there were a few dynamics in place. One was that information architects had been doing their job in industries long enough that the benefits were starting to be seen and those benefits were starting to show up on, on, on, uh, spreadsheets. Somebody could see that by having invested a certain amount of effort and time in this space, their products were doing better now. They couldn't draw the line necessarily back to information architecture specifically. They didn't know exactly why, but they just knew things were better without the than they were without it. Um, that was one thing. Another thing is that information architects, by that point, several of them had begun moving in other directions like product manager and they'd begun to move up within the apparatus of, of various companies, and they brought that need along with them and they were able to communicate that to stakeholders and folks like that say, hey, this is, this is a talent that we need. This is one of the things I used to do. Here's the benefits. Um, the other thing is that I mentioned before that people were thinking of the internet as a channel. It was beginning to differentiate itself about that time that it wasn't because it was persistent. It wasn't like a print ad that just shot out there once or even direct mail that you put out there. And if you've got a two percent take rate, you had a party. Um, this thing was, was a persistent. It was out there all the time and people began to see the value and the importance of that. Uh, even if it was from a marketing standpoint, the fact that it was persistent, he said this is something we need to pay more attention to. So it wasn't any one thing. uh, there were just a handful of, of, of, sort of maturation processes that were going on at the time, which, which collectively started pointing back towards thinking about outcomes for the people who use the products that we build on the websites, and the apps and things like that.

Tony: There's all these terms now, like a, obviously an experience designer, user experience designer, a UI design, service design, customer experience... Is it all the same thing? Should we all be thinking the same or, or are there people that are strictly like, no, I'm, I'm a product designer, I don't think about the rest. I feel like there's some damage there...

Adam: Well, so mark this on the wall was the first time say it, but it depends... You know, which is our stock answer to most things. There are people working in large companies in roles that are so specialized that, uh, that sometimes they're going whatever HR calls it a or they've been able to, to develop the need for something specific that they're doing - Because they do believe that service design is a different thing from product management - is a different thing from an information architecture - is a different thing from a user experience research. I do believe that those are not mutually exclusive because they, they, a lot of that we sort of eat from the same trough. But what we're doing with that information, what we're doing with, with those roles is, does have some, I think some empirical differences, but I think there is some overlap as far as titles go...uh, connecting titles to what people do is an exercise in futility.

But there is still, I think, a thread of at the very least of understanding how to begin with a concept, develop a concept, begin to apply the laws of physics to it and, and, and bring it along until it's something that can be built. Something that can be designed, that something can be made. Whether it's an app, whether it's uh, some kind of an operational process, whether it's a consumer good that sits on a shelf, they all have that same thing. Moving from a concept to creation.

Tony: A lot of designers and even some of my experience, they get a problem from an executive or rather they usually have the solution from the executive and it gets put on their desk and they say, okay, make this look pretty or build this. How can designers get in on the conversation earlier? Because I know it's important and I know a lot of people are in positions where they're not at that first table. What kind of, what kind of tools and steps and advice would you give someone to get to that? Even though it starts from the top usually?

Adam: It's like a lot of things, it, it comes back to relationships because how much we're allowed to do in a space that is very qualitative, not quantitative.

Tony: Would you define those two?

Adam: Sure. Quantitative meaning that they're, uh, you know, you can, uh, you can attach numbers, measures and, and very specific decimal point values to a thing. Qualitative is much more of a gray space between, uh, between black and white, between an idea and a concrete thing. Uh, it's, it's, it's tends to be messier. Uh, it's also, I think the home of creativity. People that are, are, are very creative, are usually pretty comfortable with the qualitative. Whereas people who tend to see the world through spreadsheets, uh, are, are much more comfortable with the quantitative. And I think it's because they aren't necessarily uh, disposed towards creative thinking. It doesn't mean they're incapable of it. It just means that's just not their propensity. Uh, and same thing when you have designers and creatives who tend to gravitate in the opposite direction towards the qualitative, um, you wind up with, uh, with, with, with kind of a polarization there. And since decisions are often made in companies by the people who are looking at the quantitative, that's one of the reasons that it becomes hard to, hard to get early representation when, when decisions are being made. So to go back to my original point, uh, it really comes down to relationships. In order to get to do the things we do that are qualitative but owned by quantitative thinkers, we have to build trust. They have to have some faith in us, and you build that by building relationship, building trust, and to do that you usually, if you're going to be deliberate about it, you usually have to start someplace a little closer to where you're working and find and develop a champion. Somebody who's a step or two above you who sees the value, understands the value that you bring uh and can advocate for you. Now, they may only be able to advocate up a step or two, maybe not all the way to the C Suite, but over time that maybe that is something that can be achieved and it also happens because you know, as I said, contemporaries of our are moving up in companies and you know there that they don't have to have anybody explain to them why what we do is valuable. What designers can do in the meantime is try to understand how what you do and the outcomes of what you do influence those things that the quantitative folks do value. How can what we're designing or improving a design or coming up with something that, that, uh, that is a qualitative experience. How does it increase revenue? We have the ability to say that, uh, you know, we can't give it to you in decimal points, but we can say it's going to be a whole lot better if you do it this way, then if you don't- I can guarantee that, if you will spend the time focusing on the people who use your products and giving them what they want, not what you want them to want - uh then there some, there's some value there that can be communicated to somebody who maybe doesn't see the qualitative part.

But yeah, everybody has different ways that they, that they take in information and that they, the methods that they used to have it make sense to them. One thing that we can do as designers is try to speak on those multiple levels, not just about the quality, but also be able to say something about the time and say something maybe about the cost, time and costs were in pretty close hand in hand.

Tony: It sounds kind of like designers need to understand business?

Adam: I would say that you know, they don't have to be able to sit down and read a profit and loss statement and and, and be able to interpret everything that they see there, but they do need to understand desirable business outcomes and be able to draw a line between what they're doing and those desirable business outcomes. And that's at a that that's at a sort of preliminary level. Later on, if you really do have a good partnership with the people who are making decisions, you can also get in there and help them frame the questions. Is that business outcome really the thing that they're looking for? Many of you've probably heard about heard, the, the heard about the exercise, the five whys. Somebody says this is the thing we need, and you say, well, why is that? And then they said, well, because our competitors are doing this and that, well, why are they doing it? And really uncovering it, peeling it back until you can figure out what the real problem is - because if I don't, my boss is going to kill me. That may be as far as it goes, but you want to try to dig a little deeper than that. Say, uh, you know, because we need to change the way we're doing business or we're going to be out of business. So getting in and understanding what the real needs are is also a service that we can provide to people on the business side of things.

Tony: And then I think- with that, the people that may or may not have creativity, rather, it's, it's sort of been muted for so long and that's not how they operate in their business. Um, but hopefully over time they start to see it and start to understand the process that it is adding the value, especially if the designer is articulating it in a way that, like you said, like they understand those sorts of metrics.

Adam: Yeah. Another example that I use is a microwave popcorn. I want to put the bag in the microwave and want to press the button that is popcorn. I want to get popcorn. Now if you can help me do that, then I'm going to work with you. I may or may not need to know the principles of microwave science. As long as you do that, that may be good enough and it's, it can be, it can be the same way with, with design. If I really don't have an eye for design, but I trust you because you do... You're going to get the latitude to do the kinds of things that you, that you need to.

Tony: I love that metaphor and I love popcorn. So where do you think. So we started in like '96, '97, whatever it was. We had sort of a transition period. Where do you think we're going next as far as user experience and thinking about thinking about things outside of an app or computer, what are the implications of all the different products that are going to be needing design and needing to build an experience around?

Adam: So I think we're doing a pretty good job these days of starting to take what we do and think about it off the screen. You know, we're looking at, at, at AI, we're looking at gesture based systems that can do things based on what you look like, how you stand, how uh, you know, a gesture that you make - things having to do with voice, uh, you know, Alexa and, and, and, and company are going gangbusters. So I think the next area of focus and whether whether this works out or not, I don't know, but is going to be in the area of ethics. Not just can we do a thing, but should we do a thing? Every idea that people came up with that did something really good probably has in the hands of the right or the wrong person has the ability to do bad as well.

We need to, as the people who are thinking these things up, we need to try and do like like, like somebody in who's in a debate does and, and think of all the opposition points. Think of all the arguments against what you would argue for and play those scenarios out as well. And if you see that the propensity for bad is high and you could even project exactly what kinds of things might happen, then it's your job to speak up and it's a really hard thing and sort of easy for me to say here from the cheap seats to say you need to stand up and say so is going to be really, really important. Because going to be able technically to do a lot of things. Technology is giving us superpowers. So our job as human beings is to look at those superpowers and figure out how they can be used for good and, but also consider how they can be misused.

And I think that's where a lot of time and effort and thinking is going to go- It's already beginning to. Uh, to, to plug a book, uh, by my friend Cennydd Bowles called 'Future Ethics' Uh, he, he recently published a really great work on how to start thinking about ethics within using different philosophical schools of thought historically associated with ethics, but putting them in this context of new technology and new capabilities - things that we didn't foresee. Great, cool things that we didn't foresee, bUt at the same time, some bad things that we didn't, that we didn't foresee.

Tony: One of the hardest battles is going to be how much money is that going to make - versus the ethics of it. And I think designers are going to have to have their ammo ready knowing that's the battle.

Adam: Yeah. And it calls for the individual to take on a lot. Uh, I've, I've been in a circumstance where I saw something potentially bad coming out of, of, of, of a clIent of the company I was working at was pursuing. And I spoke up about it. I connected some dots that the leadership had not. And fortunately the they took on board, they took what I said seriously. And they changed course. Um, but before I stood up and said that before I made meetings with these people, I had long talks with my wife about whether or not I was willing to walk over this. And, uh, I'd come to the decision that I really was, because if in spite of this information, the company wanted to pursue this, this line of activity that by itself said this is the, there wasn't a place where I needed to be. And so I'd made that decision. Fortunately, it didn't come down to it. I didn't have to make the decision because things went in, you know, in a, in a, in a good and a good, uh, uh, things went on a better trajectory. Um, but that may not always be the case - because you are going to have companies who, uh, either because of their financial situation, their expenses and things like, that are willing to lower the bar for, you know, for the people that they do business with and, people that they partner with.

Tony: I think about things like Alexa and Google Home and the convenience sometimes outweighs or maybe puts a curtain in front of how creepy it really is. And it's nascent right now. It's like not even a thing right now.

Adam: Well, there are a couple of things that have occurred now. First of all I mentioned I was in the military. I, I, I gave up the notion that I could keep my life, uh, while I was in the military even before computers. I just, I knew that if people got a line on ya and they felt like they need to know more about you, they can find it out. So when it comes to data being stolen or you know, I haven't been on the wrong end of that, that I'm aware of, but the sheer numbers of it make it where I'm probably not going to become a target myself.

Tony: Famous last words...

Adam: I'm just kinda hiding, just kind of hiding in plain sight. Um, you know, and I say that and then I might discover that my identity has been stolen.

Tony: I show up to work Monday - where's Adam?

Adam: Yeah, he's, I don't know. He left for work and no one's seen him since.

Tony: Not to end on a dystopian note.

Adam: Yeah?

Tony: We've really run the gamut here of your wealth of knowledge. But I want to end on a question that I end with everybody and it really has nothing to do with anything. What object or thing that you own has had the most impact on your life or means the most to you? Non-digital thing.

Adam: Non digital thing that wipes out a couple of answers. Um, if, if we can maybe play a little bit with the semantics of, of, own.

Tony: Yeah!

Adam: And maybe change that to say what, what aspect?

Tony: Let's go -

Adam: -of your life, of element in your life. I would have to say my daughter.

Tony: Yeah.

Adam: Uh, nothing has nothing else has changed the way I see the world because I - not, I have not only my own views, but I see things through her eyes too because we got what I hope will continue to be a very, very good relationship. And we talk a lot. Uh, so I, and she, you know, she's become uh less of a kid, more of a young woman. Uh, she is formulating her own opinions and her own ideas and she's doing it based on experiences that I don't have a and she shares with me. And so I've got that. I've got just the fact that when you become a father, uh, it didn't take long before, I couldn't remember not being a dad and not really caring about that. Not, not really, uh, uh, missing that - I couldn't imagine not being a dad to my daughter. Um, and her, her presence just does so much to guide and govern what I think is important now. If she had not, if I had not had a kid and have not experienced her life with her so far, uh, I, I, uh, I don't know where my head would be. I don't know what kind of a person I would be, but it, it, uh, it's a great, it's a great kickstarter to begin to get in to a mindset that doesn't put you with a center.

Tony: Truer words have never spoken. Where can people find you?

Adam: I am on Twitter @adamtheia. I'm also on Linkedin if you're looking around out there, there aren't a ton of Adam Polanski's out there. Um, but, uh, yeah, I, uh, I, I, I spew from time to time when I'm, when I get on the-

Tony: It's good spewing.

Adam: Yeah-

Tony: I want this spew again. I want to have you on to spew some more.

Adam: Sure.

Tony: Thank you Adam.

Adam: You bet.

Tony: And that will do it for Adam Polanski. I hope you enjoyed listening to that episode as much as I enjoyed talking to him and I can't wait to have him on again. If you want to get in contact with me and talk shop, talk about the episode, reach out on instagram or Facebook or the website. Everything is xdpodcast. Real easy. And thanks for listening. I can't wait to talk to you next week. Like, subscribe, share, you know, spread the kisses. Until then, stay curious.