Babble Voice Privacy System

Kirsten Jones recently pointed me to Herman Miller‘s Babble Voice Privacy System. Babble is a small device (about the size of a tape player) that takes sound within a certain radius and rebroadcasts it as nonsense. In other words, it allows you to have private conversations in open spaces.    (MQP)

Babble is being marketed as a privacy device, but it’s actually an important productivity device. People are good at ignoring white noise. When our brains hear sounds they don’t recognize, they ignore them. People are bad at ignoring recognizable sounds. Every ambient conversation we overhear is a concentration breaker.    (MQQ)

The list price for a Babble is $695, which is steep for most mortals. However, there’s a simple trick you can use for similar effect: music. People do this all the time on their own: When they need to concentrate, they put on their headphones. However, you can do this for an entire space as well.    (MQR)

The added benefit of using music in this way for Open Space-style events is that you can use this as a transitional device. Raise the volume when you want people to move, and lower the volume when you’ve achieved your goal. MGTaylor does this all the time, but they’re not the only ones. Open Space facilitators often use Tibetan prayer bells to signal transition. Allen Gunn (Gunner) will often start singing when he wants people to transition.    (MQS)

Productivity, Working Big, and Spatial Awareness

My colleague, Jeff Shults, has a saying: “Work big.” Jeff is a space guru, as many of you who have participated in a Blue Oxen Associates workshop know, as most of my events have been at his different spaces. The most glaring feature of his space are the huge, movable work walls.    (MQE)

Working big is important even when we’re working small — at our desks in front of our computers, for example. I’ve cited speculation and a study on the productivity gains from using larger screens. I recently ran across Clive Thompson‘s New York Times magazine article that cited a similar study by Mary Czerwinski at Microsoft.    (MQF)

On the bigger screen, people completed the tasks at least 10 percent more quickly – and some as much as 44 percent more quickly. They were also more likely to remember the seven-digit number, which showed that the multitasking was clearly less taxing on their brains. Some of the volunteers were so enthralled with the huge screen that they begged to take it home. In two decades of research, Czerwinski had never seen a single tweak to a computer system so significantly improve a user’s productivity.    (MQG)

Thompson makes a key point in his article: Productivity in an interrupt-driven world seems to be closely related to our ability to switch and remember different contexts. Bigger screens allow you to take advantage of spatial awareness to switch and remember different contexts.    (MQH)

There’s a corollary to this regarding complex problems. I’m convinced that the primary value of graphical facilitation is not the Visual Language used to capture ideas, but the relationship created between ideas and space. In other words, you’ll remember the discussion around an idea better if you remember that it was the conversation that was captured on the lower right hand side of the screen or wall. This belief has greatly eased my stress when Dialogue Mapping, as ultimately, I see my task as building spatial memory.    (MQI)

That’s not to say that Visual Language isn’t important. It is, and fortunately, there’s a fantastic community of folks who are exploring it. The better news is that many of these folks will be converging in San Francisco on January 27-29, 2008 for the VizThink conference.    (MQJ)

Cisco’s Workplace of the Future

I’m a big fan of Cisco Systems. Sure, they’re a $200 billion behemoth. But they don’t act like it (not in an anti-competitive way, at least). They make quality products, they acquire great companies for good reasons, and they seem to generally care about bootstrapping and collaboration. My colleagues at MGTaylor and the Value Web have done quite a bit of work with Cisco and John Chambers, and they’ve only said good things about them. Cisco also used to have an internal research group focused on collaboration that was doing great work, although I don’t know if it still exists.    (MPX)

A good friend of mine works there and had been promising me a tour of its “workplace of the future” for quite some time. A few years ago, Cisco designated one floor in Buildings 11 and 14 as experimental spaces, designed to be a more collaborative environment in today’s network world. My friend had spoken glowingly of portable workspaces, movable walls, and open space, and I was excited to see it for myself.    (MPY)

This past Monday, on my way down to Southern California for the holidays, I stopped at Cisco for my promised tour. As we walked over to Building 14, my friend told me that employees who worked there had complained about the space, particularly the lack of private space to get work done and a “home base” they could call their own.    (MPZ)

I got my first experience of the “workplace of the future” in the lobby, where a virtual receptionist badged me. The space was like any receptionist area, except there was no receptionist. On the desk, there was a badge machine, and behind the desk, there was a large LCD screen with a camera. We pressed the button, and a person appeared on the screen. My friend identified herself, explained who I was, and out popped a badge. It was cute, but gimmicky. I’d be curious to know how much money they save (if any) by doing this.    (MQ0)

Then, the coup de grace: the space itself. The first thing I noticed was the eating area, an enclosed circle at the center of the space. “A Watering Hole, positioned nicely,” I thought. Next, I noticed rows and rows of lockers.    (MQ1)

Then I noticed the cubicles. Rows and rows of cubicles. “When do we get to see the space?” I asked my friend. Then I saw the look of shock on her face, and I realized that we were looking at it. Cisco had given up. They had listened to the complaints and had replaced their experimental space with cubicles.    (MQ2)

My friend felt really bad, but I wasn’t disappointed, not by the tour at least. (Not that I passed on the opportunity to poke fun at her and Cisco. “So this is the workplace of the future?” I asked. “Looks an awful like the past to me.”) There were some great lessons to draw from the experience.    (MQ3)

First, designing effective spaces is hard. It’s one thing to design an effective collaborative space; it’s another to design an effective work space for lots of people. You have to account for the Intimacy Gradient, and if there’s cultural change involved, you have to decide whether the cultural shift is actually desirable.    (MQ4)

Second, good companies aren’t perfect. I need to find out why exactly they changed the space, but the fact that they reverted to cubicles disappointed me greatly. It’s one thing to make a mistake; it’s another thing to give up entirely. If any of you know the story behind these spaces, I’d love to hear it.    (MQ5)

Uncle Eric Comes to Cincinnati

Last month, I visited my two sisters, my brother-in-law, and of course, my nephew Elliott in Cincinnati. Once again, Elliott asked if he could guest blog, and I happily complied. –EEK    (MPJ)

A few weeks ago, I was happily conked out in the car on the way to Musikgarten (a musical play on kindergarten). When we arrived, I groggily opened my eyes and saw Uncle Eric sitting next to me.    (MPK)    (MPL)

It seems like every time he visits, he magically appears in the car while I’m taking a nap. Even though I’m already three years old, I still have a ways to go before I’m a bitter, cynical adolescent, so I was thrilled to see him, and I gave him a big hug.    (MPM)    (MPN)

Uncle was wearing his Dodgers hat, so I broke out my own hat as well, and showed him that the L.A. blood still runs strong in this Midwestern boy. He also brought me a toy forklift and one of his Transformers, which he had kept stashed away in his closet for years. I don’t know what a grown man was doing with a box of childhood toys in his closet. He kept mumbling something about them being worth something on eBay someday, but I wasn’t buying it. In any case, he said he was even more happy to let me have them, and I can’t say I disagree.    (MPO)    (MPP)

Uncle Eric is always teaching me critical skills necessary for surviving in this world. This time, he showed me how to psych people out when they’re about to give you a five and how to express satisfaction after a tasty meal (“Mmm, mmm, mmm!”). In return, I taught him how to express emotion on command.    (MPQ)    (MPR)

In addition to these life lessons, we also spent a lot of time playing at home and in the park.    (MPS)    (MPT)

I had fun playing with Uncle, but he seemed to sleep a lot on this trip. I told Mommy that Uncle is getting old. [True story! –EEK] She claimed that he was working a lot, which might have been true, but he is getting old.    (MPU)

While we were at the park playing, Uncle had to take a call. He spent almost an hour on the phone, and he looked frustrated and haggard afterwards. So I asked him if he would carry me, and I gave him a big hug, and he had a big smile on his face afterwards. Adults are so easy.    (MPV)

As always, food played a major role on our trip. Aunt Jessica made delicious muffins and cupcakes in cones, and I ate a few dozens of those. Daddy and Uncle Eric snuck out one evening for wings and beer. I wanted to go too, but Mommy somehow didn’t think it appropriate for me to drink beer with them. Uncle agreed, saying I’d have to wait until I was at least five. To make up for this, Uncle made us Polish hunter’s stew out of the myriad of pork products he had acquired from Chicago. Mmm, mmm, mmm!    (MPW)

Online Tools As Space

It’s late, I’m tired, and I have a workshop I’m hosting tomorrow. But, I’ve got to get this off my chest now. You can thank my old partner in crime, Chris Dent, for initially instigating this with his blog post entitled, People in Social Software Systems.” What closed the deal for me was reading Wendy Seltzer‘s piece, “Facebook: Privacy versus cross-context aggregation.”    (MOZ)

I’ve been playing with this metaphor of Online Tools As Space for about a year now, and I’ve been threatening to write an essay on it for about as long. The premise is simple. We have a natural intuition for space and how it affects the way we work. Whether or not we leverage that intuition is another problem entirely, but the fact of the matter is, we do a better job of leveraging that intuition in meatspace than we do in online space. And we can leverage that intuition in online space.    (MP0)

Online space is mostly equivalent to physical space, except the physics are slightly different. The folks at Linden Lab have this saying about Second Life: “It’s just like real life, except you can fly.” That’s not quite what I mean when I say the physics of online space is different, and the statement itself is wrong in subtle, but important ways. (Yeah, yeah, I understand it’s a marketing slogan.)    (MP1)

Time is essentially equivalent in both online and physical space. What’s different are the notions of proximity and presence. There is still the notion of distance in online space, but it’s fungible. I can bridge gaps by modifying the presentation layer or by linking content, and suddenly, distances disappear. Moreover, we can take an existing online space and munge into something that looks entirely different. Since we don’t have the notion of physical presence, we have to create a digital representation — essentially Digital Identity.    (MP2)

What are the ramifications of all of this? First the good news. Once we get past the mental roadblock that technology seems to create in all of us, we can find that — for the most part — our intuitions about space applies both to physical and online spaces. I can identify a good intimate or public space just by looking at it, whether it’s a physical room or a web site. We just have to leverage this intuition.    (MP3)

Now the bad news. The fungibility of online space and Digital Identity creates social havoc, largely in the area of privacy. People’s blogs feel like private spaces, and so people treat them as such, but they’re not actually private. People make contributions to Wikipedia, not expecting these to reveal much about their identities, yet some researchers discover that if you aggregate all this data, you can create visualizations that reveal a startling amount about a person’s identity. And all of this stuff is easy to do.    (MP4)

I’ve got a lot more to say on all of this, and perhaps one day, I’ll be able to say it coherently. But now that I’ve gotten it off my chest, I’d love to hear people’s feedback.    (MP5)