TAOI: Facebook Groups Paywall

The architecture of information:

The word “paywall” is one of many we use to describe aspects of digital experiences that reveal how we metaphorically think of them as places. A wall is a barrier, and with a “pay” wall we erect a financial barrier between parts of an information environment. We use the word most often in the context of journalism, where publications such as the Wall Street Journal have adopted it as their primary business model online.

Back in June, Facebook announced that they’re experimenting with “subscription groups,” giving admins the ability to set up paywalls for their Facebook groups. According to a post on The Verge, admins will be able to charge between $4.99 – $29.99 per month for membership in groups. Facebook is positioning the pilot as a way for group administrators to get rewarded for managing their communities. The company has tested advertising to groups in the past; I’m glad to see it exploring sources of revenue beyond selling the attention of its users.

#1 New Release in…

I’ve worked in digital information environments for most of my career. Feedback loops in these systems are close to instantaneous. For example, you can see how many people are using your website almost in real-time. You can analyze their flows through the environment and make adjustments as required. Not so with books.

Living in Information has been out for a month. As you may imagine, I’m very keen to know how it’s received. There’s no equivalent to Google Analytics to see how a book is doing, so I’m cobbling information from various sources. For example, I’ve set up a saved Twitter search for the book’s title, which I check almost daily so I can interact with readers. And of course, I’m also regularly visiting the book’s Amazon page looking to see if people are leaving reviews.

(Please — if you’ve read the book, leave a review. It doesn’t need to be a five-star review; any rating helps. This article in USA Today explains why Amazon reviews are so critical.)

Shortly after launch, I was surprised to see this little notice on the book’s Amazon page:

“Bam!,” I thought. “#1 New Release in Ethics!” I was proud and excited. I can’t imagine ethics is a hot-selling category, but still… When I visited the book’s page a couple of days later, the little notice was gone. “Oh,” I sighed. “That was that.” But later that day I saw it again. And then, a few days later, I saw this:

Living in Information #1 New Release in Web Site Design

Yikes! Web site design is a larger category than ethics. That must be a good thing, right? Still, I’m puzzled by the whole thing. Why were these banners appearing and disappearing? How were these categories chosen? How long is something considered to be a “New Release”?

I’ve been trying to find information about Amazon’s “#1 New Release” feature, but haven’t found details on how the algorithm works. (As expected; companies usually aren’t forthcoming with this sort of thing.) The one on my book’s page seems to change hourly. (At least.)

The “#1 New Release in…” banner probably affects book sales. I’ve run across it before as a buyer, and it’s influenced my understanding of how well-received a book is, encouraging me to check it out. It’s a good example of algorithmically-driven context-creating elements that can tweak an information environment to change behavior.

Clarifying Distinctions

When designing an information environment, you must ensure distinctions between parts of the environment are clear. This means users must be able to look at labels in navigation bars and section headers and understand the differences between them. When distinctions are clear, users don’t have to think about them: they know where to go and what they can expect to find and do there.

That this is obvious doesn’t make it easy. Often distinctions aren’t all that clear. Perhaps designers have tried to group too many things in that part of the environment, leading to labels that try to contain too much. Or maybe folks from the branding team have insisted that labels must include language that is only clear to people already familiar with the organization’s offerings. Whatever the case, to quote an old Martin Gore song, “Finding the right words can be a problem.”

Let me give you an example. I want to take my kids to an amusement park. There are two big parks near where we live: California’s Great America and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Both of these parks have websites. Here are their primary navigation bars:

California's Great America website navigation

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom website navigation

Great America’s navigation bar seems simpler; it’s got five items (whereas Six Flags’s has eight) and it has a “cleaner” visual design. Great America has also surfaced an important piece of information (the park’s opening hours) to the utility navigation bar, which Six Flags has as an item in its primary nav bar. I also question some of Six Flag’s choices regarding granularity. Why are “Groups,” “Passes & Memberships,” and “Tickets” three separate areas? Shouldn’t these all be under “Tickets”?

That said, when navigating both sites, I found Six Flags’s navigation structure easier to use. The main reason is that they’ve used plain language to establish clear distinctions between important parts of the environment. I understand the difference between “Things to Do” and “Plan Visit.” Instead, Great America uses two non-obvious labels: “Explore” and “Play.” This is a curious choice of verbs. What’s the difference between exploring and playing in this context?

I came to these sites to look for the height restrictions for their rides. I know where to find the rides in the Six Flags site (“Things to Do”). But where are they in the Great America site? I’m guessing they’re under “Play,” but they could easily be under “Explore.” (As in, “explore our park.”) It turns out they’re under “Play;” the “Explore” section contains a mix of news, park information, and other important items that don’t seem to fit neatly in other sections:

Califonia's Great America 'Explore' menu

Note that I was able to determine the contents of the “Explore” section by merely hovering over the nav bar. The use of mega menus such as this one has alleviated some of the confusion caused by ill-defined distinctions. That said, mega menus don’t help in the mobile context (which is where I first experienced this particular site):

California's Great America mobile navigation

If you find yourself struggling with labeling the distinctions in an information environment, consider the possibility that the grouping may have problems; it may be trying to do too much, or be driven by concerns that aren’t user-centered. And of course, test the labeling and grouping to ensure it’s clearly understood by the people who need to use it.

Establishing Meaningful Distinctions

Information architecture is ultimately about establishing and clarifying distinctions; defining sets of things. Grouping items creates a boundary around them: these things are different from those other things in one or more ways. When boundaries are meaningful, people can find (and understand) the items they’re looking for.

Things have different meanings for different people in different contexts. A baseball bat means one thing if you see it alongside a ball in a stadium than if you see it alongside a bloodied glove in a courtroom. We call the first group “equipment” and the latter “evidence.” These labels evoke particular contexts, and thus imbue the items with meaning. If you see a baseball bat in a list titled “evidence,” you know somebody probably got hurt.

That said, a title may not be necessary: sometimes listing the items in the group is enough to convey the context they’re in. Bat, ball, glove, base – the list is enough; I don’t need to place a label above it for you to know what these things mean. (Note I didn’t even have to write “baseball glove”; you got my meaning merely because of the presence of the other items in the list.)

One of the most challenging things about information architecture is that it’s often not clear what groupings (or labelings) will be meaningful to the people who need to use the things we design. Seldom are things as obvious as the baseball example above; you may be called to deal with arcane terminology, novel products, or concepts that are too abstract to relate meaningfully to things people already understand.

To make matters more complicated, the people commissioning the work often have distinctions of their own, groupings that make sense to them. “These products are ‘owned’ by this business unit, ergo they belong together.” If you’re lucky (or if the organization is particularly customer-centric), the groupings may already make sense as an ensemble. In those cases, the work focuses on clarifying labeling. But what if the groupings don’t make sense? Then you must work to establish new groupings and labels. Challenging, especially with organizational gravitational forces pulling towards the established order.

Establishing meaningful distinctions calls for understanding both the context items will be perceived in and the people we intend to make sense of the information. In other words, it calls for research and testing. Creating distinctions people understand requires that you understand them yourself first. When you do, you must then prototype the new order and stress-test (and refine) it with the people it’s intended to serve. Does it make items easier to find and understand? Does it create the right context? Does it make sense to them?

Transactional and Behavioral Change

I’m often hired to effect transactional change: get prospects to convert more, facilitate content discovery, reduce website bounce rates, etc. These are worthwhile goals. However, they tend to focus on short-term change, whereas information architecture deals with underlying structures that change at a slower rate.

When making information easier to find and understand, we’re also creating contexts that affect how people see themselves in relation to the organization. The distinctions we establish in the environment — how we set up each part of the place as different from the others — undoubtedly impacts transactional change. For example, clearer labeling may decrease shopping cart abandonment by making it easier for customers to understand what step of the checkout process they’re in and how many more are left to go. In this scenario, the customers find it easier to complete a transaction they were already mentally committed to.

However, these distinctions can also drive long-term behavioral change. When Amazon sets up parts of its information environments as being available only to “Prime Members,” that labeling changes more than just the content and structure of its website. Whereas formerly the customer saw herself as a loyal Amazon customer, now she knows there’s a tier of people who are somehow more loyal than her, and who get perks for so being. She, too, can join this club, and doing so influences her shopping patterns in the long term.

Changes to an environment’s information architecture must be considered with a longer-term perspective than UX designers normally deal with. Structural distinctions change not just how we think of the information we interact with, but also how we think about ourselves in relation to that information. The impact of changes to an information architecture is felt well beyond the near-term goals that are the usual focus of website or app redesign engagements.

Two Information Problems

Let’s say you’re in the market for a new dinglehopper. (What? You don’t know what a dinglehopper is? Good…) You know you need a dinglehopper, but don’t know much about them. In fact, the only thing you know about dinglehoppers is that you need one. The process of selecting the one that’s right for you will require some learning.

This is not an uncommon situation; many people need to buy things they’re only casually familiar with. For example, a young dad-to-be may want to buy a “better” camera because he’s read that his smartphone isn’t good enough to capture a baby’s nuanced expressions in low-lit rooms. Which cameras are best for this? He has no idea. He visits a camera store and sees the following options:

DSLR, Mirrorless System, Point & Shoot, Medium Format. “Aha!,” he thinks, “These are different types of cameras!” But what’s the difference between a “mirrorless system” camera and a “medium format” camera? Which is best for photographing a newborn without costing more than $1,000? One of the categories features a camera that seems to have no lens on it. Aren’t those critical for taking photographs? Does that mean he must buy lenses?

He clicks on one of the categories. He sees a list of camera products, with the following options to filter down available choices:

That’s a lot of choices! Some of them map to his existing mental model (e.g., filter by price range, show only those with free shipping) while others may baffle him (e.g. video resolution, sensor size.) He also sees a list of brands that are ostensibly camera market leaders, but he doesn’t yet know which have better reputations than others, or which specialize in particular types of cameras.

Our young friend has two problems before him:

  1. he needs to know what options are available, and
  2. he needs to know what the differences between them mean and how they affect his decision.

This is what we usually think of when we talk about not having enough information to make a decision. A cursory glance at the camera category in a well-stocked online store can answer (1), but answering (2) is a bit more difficult.

The way the information is organized establishes distinctions in the user’s mind. The fact there are four types of cameras (according to this store) is a good start; our friend starts thinking in terms of the ​differences between them. Then comes the hard part: knowing what those differences mean. The user must build a new mental model; he must gain an understanding of what these differences mean in this context.

Information environments vary on the degree to which they aid us along the journey of building this type of contextual knowledge. Some environments accommodate people who already have some degree of expertise, while others are designed for less experienced people. Often, the distinctions established by the environment must speak to both types of users; both pros and beginners will care about the differences in camera types, but people in the latter group doesn’t yet know it.

The environment must allow pros to get to what they’re looking for quickly. On top of this baseline findability function, the environment will also serve a didactic role for beginners. These two objectives are in tension with each other: an environment that assumes lots of contextual know-how will be unusable to beginners, and one that assumes zero knowledge will alienate pros. In designing such a place, you must strive for balance between these two objectives. Solving for (1) is easy; solving for (2) is more difficult. Doing both simultaneously while accommodating users with a broad range of contextual expertise is quite a trick.

Tread Mindfully

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
— W. Edward Demming

Every system serves at least one purpose. That’s what a system is: a set of elements that work in interrelated ways towards a purpose. Your body is a system; its primary purpose is to keep you alive. Your body’s constituent elements compose various subsystems that support this purpose. For example, your stomach is part of your digestive (sub)system, whose purpose it is to bring energy into the body.

Systems that have evolved into their current configuration (such as your body) are well-fitted to serving their purpose within the environment they exist in. (Those that weren’t well-fitted aren’t around to read blog posts.) The particular elements that compose your body — and the ways they relate to each other — are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of small experiments that lead towards ever tighter form-context-purpose fit.

Design is, in a sense, an attempt to accelerate this process. Your business doesn’t have six hundred thousand years to launch a new product; it has six months. So you assemble novel configurations of elements and test them. Not all possibilities, mind you: a tiny set. “Intelligent design” is a redundant phrase; design is intelligent by definition. The alternative is an undirected process. In either case, the goal is good fit.

The flip side is that a currently existing system that’s producing “bad” results is working as intended. If it hasn’t destroyed itself (or its environment) yet, then it’s functioning “well” towards its purpose — or at least have the ability to adapt further. Now, you may look at what the system is doing and be horrified. You may deem its purpose to be undesirable. You can then do something about it: either tweak its configuration or shut it down altogether. (That said, there aren’t many systems that are under your exclusive control, so you’ll have to build consensus to intervene.)

But effective interventions call for clarity; for understanding what’s really going on with the system. Are you sure you know how it works and towards what ends? How do you know? Complex systems often serve more than one purpose. How do you know that an intervention meant to tweak one outcome won’t inadvertently affect another? (Possibly with catastrophic results.) Complex systems that have achieved good fit have done so for reasons, some of which won’t be obvious on superficial examination. Tread mindfully, with humility and genuine curiosity.