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Aligned Organizations and Meaningful Communities

This book is for people who make things out of people: people who make social networks, organizational policies and processes, clubs, events, monasteries, recommender systems, classroom exercises, and so on.

It's about a new way to design these things.

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It's different in three ways.

First, it’s about designing meaningful experiences, not just pleasurable or efficient ones.

Does that seem niche? It's not:

  • What's meaningful to a parent might be protecting and supporting their child, or watching them discover life.
  • What's meaningful to an employee might be real connections with customers, or creative expression in their work.
  • What's meaningful to a scientist might be testing intuitions about patterns in data.
  • What's meaningful to users of a financial tool may involve a grounded understanding of which purchases will be possible, and when.

Meaningful experience is at the heart of what matters to us, but is often lost as products and organizations scale up.

One challenge here, is that we lack a vocabulary for naming these sources of meaning precisely. In this book, we develop such a vocabulary. We define a person's values as "the things they pay attention to when they make their most meaningful choices".

In our course, we write them in a special format, and test software against them:

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Gathering a population's values helps us verify that meaningful choices keep happening as things scale up.

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This method takes a wide view of meaningful experience. It's not just about peak moments—not just the moment you say "I do", accept your dream job, or solve the mystery. Meaning is everything you did to get there: the relationships you built, the supportive environments you needed, etc. The methods in this book give you a way to collect these backstories from users, employees, and so on, draw general conclusions, and reshape your design around them.

How it works: we start with a story where someone lives by a particular value—in the example below, it is vulnerability. We use that story to surface all the little things a design needs to get right, to make vulnerability possible.

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Finally, what's meaningful to people turns out to mostly be interpersonal. So this book includes methods to prototype interpersonal experiences, rather than individual ones, and related shifts in design thinking—from foci like individual incentives and individual journeys, to models of relationship building and legitimation.

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So, this book has readings and exercises, mostly about these three things: (1) understanding and supporting meaningful choices and acts; (2) taking inspiration from the backstories of meaningful experience; and (3) designing interpersonal processes, not just individual incentives and experiences.

The three add up to a new way to design social systems—which, I believe, is sorely needed.

Other design methods emphasize pleasurable experience, efficiency, and individual experience. That's given us the attention economy, and a collapse in the social fabric. What's pleasurable and efficient for one person is often neither pleasurable, nor efficient, for society at large.

Furthermore:

  • As your product, community, or organization scales, a focus on meaning keeps what's really important front and center.
  • Backstory analysis helps you anticipate second-order effects and address them, when more naive designs would cause as many problems as they solve.
  • Focusing on interpersonal experience is the way out of the virtualization and individualization-spiral that's dominated the 20th and 21st centuries.

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But you don't have to believe any of that to read this book. You just have to want to design meaningful things, to collect information about what's meaningful for people, and to prototype interpersonal experiences.

Here are four ways to start:

  1. Start with the two big concepts, by reading
    🦦
    Making Values Concrete
    and
    👣
    Introducing Hard Steps
  2. Or, if you're up for some exercises, try
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    Four Social Worlds 🕵️‍♂️🌳💍📈
    and
    Worksheet: On My Own Terms
  3. For more on how this affects designs and design process, start with
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    Values-Alignment and Design
    , and
    📦
    Practices and Methods
    .
  4. The best way to use this textbook is to sign up for The School for Social Design. There, we customize everything around a project you care about and your learning style.