Information systems get crufty when left unchecked. Companies grow either organically or through acquisitions. As they do, their websites and apps gain new content and features. Additions and exceptions accrue over time, compromising the system’s clarity. The result is often a muddle.
There are two ways to address this problem: continuously or intermittently. The first requires clear, functional governance and ongoing investment in a cohesive user experience. As you might suspect, that’s a tall order. So, most organizations opt for the second: intermittent corrections driven by a significant — often external — change.
I call these inflection points: critical interventions that nudge the system on a different trajectory. They’re often provoked by external events such as acquisitions or new product releases. These events spur redesign projects, which in turn offer the opportunity to re-evaluate the system’s information architecture.
Inflection points allow the organization to reconsider what it’s doing, try new things, and lay the groundwork for a more sensible approach to change. But that only happens when approached thoughtfully. Unfortunately, many teams waste opportunities for structural improvement as they scramble in crisis mode toward deadlines.
Big change is on my mind because I’m going through one: my family is preparing for a big move. We’re planning to spend the first half of 2024 as nomads, so we’re downsizing. I usually work from a small laptop connected to a large external display, but this setup won’t be practical on the road. So, last week, I upgraded to a computer with a larger display: a 16” MacBook Pro.
There are essentially two ways to move to a new computer:
- Doing an automated migration, where software moves your apps, configurations, and data from the old computer to the new one.
- Doing a manual migration, where you set up the new computer from scratch and move things over one by one.
The first option is by far the fastest: automated migrations can take at most an afternoon and mainly entail letting the computers do their thing. The aim is to replicate as much of the old system as possible in the new computer: get the exact files, folders, applications, configurations, etc. over as quickly as possible.
In contrast, manual migrations can take several days and require lots of hands-on work. You evaluate each system component as you go. Do you really need to sync your photos? Yes, that must come over. What about that audio leveling app you used twice? Perhaps not. As you may imagine, this takes time. But manual migrations offer you a unique opportunity to reconsider your workflows and applications.
In reviewing the old computer’s setup, I realized there was a lot of cruft. Over the years I owned that machine, I tried lots of apps; some lingered though I seldom used them. Others were carry-overs from an earlier computer; they were central to my workflows at one point, but I’d found other ways of doing the same thing. Still, I’d hung on to them “just in case.”
The migration allowed me to be more mindful about how I work. When installing apps on the new machine, I considered which I truly need and which I can do without now. I emphasize “now” because I may need to reinstall some of these applications soon. That’s OK — I know how to do that if necessary. But for now, I pared down to the essentials.
Then there’s extraneous stuff that was snatching my attention. For example, I was logged into several social networks on the old computer. The rationale was that I’d use them only to share my work, but in reality, I often visited them reflexively to procrastinate. (In the new computer, I’ve only logged into LinkedIn, for which I have genuine work uses.)
Which is to say, our family’s move is an inflection point: it allows me to step back from the day-to-day to re-evaluate my tools, processes, and habits. I could do it the “quick and easy” way (we have lots of other stuff going on!), but then I’d waste the opportunity to evolve my setup while keeping it lean and vibrant.
Of course, you must be thoughtful about such undertakings. In the case of my migration, there are several things I considered to minimize disruptions:
- Timing. I waited to start the migration when I wasn’t as busy with client work.
- Leveraging automations. Even though I’m moving manually, I’m taking advantage of some automated conveniences. For example, I keep my photos in Apple’s iCloud library; all I need to do to get the pictures onto the new computer is log into that service.
- Contingency planning. I had several alternatives in case things went wrong: I backed up the old computer, had both machines running side by side for a week, and used cloud syncing services like Dropbox and iCloud.
- Documenting. I started a new note to write down what I was installing and how. (This is especially important for things like command line tools that don’t live in the Applications folder.)
The last point might feel like unnecessary busy work, but it’s important. This won’t be the last time I switch to a new computer; writing things down now will save me re-doing the research three or four years from now. I’ll update this note as I tweak the system over time rather than wait for the next big shift. Governance!
Major events such as personal moves, corporate acquisitions, and product launches disrupt day-to-day work. We want to get back to business as usual ASAP. In so doing, we can miss opportunities to re-evaluate and optimize. Significant changes let us step back and reconsider our stance vis-à-vis the evolving big picture. (As I’ve said previously, IA projects are excellent MacGuffins.)
Shedding the cruft in your personal information systems helps you be more efficient, intentional, and engaged. And in information systems meant to be used by others, such as websites and apps, shedding cruft leads to better experiences. It won’t be easy, but it’s important to occasionally invest in correcting course. Don’t waste your rare and precious inflection points for the sake of convenience.
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