“Information” in Navigation Labels

One of the most challenging aspects of designing a navigation system is finding the right labels for its links or buttons. The words we use for these labels must be recognizable while being distinctive. They must be specific enough that users will be able to differentiate between all the choices before them, but broad enough to encompass all the things they point to. They must be pithy; you don’t have space to ramble. They must also help create a sense of context; the understanding that this place is different from others. In short, defining labels is not a trivial task. We must be careful with the words we choose.

Look at this navigation structure:

Sign-In | Banking | Credit Cards | Loans | Investments | Learning

These labels give you a clear idea of the sort of place you’re in. (A bank.) Some are more specific than others. (“Credit Cards” is more specific than “Banking,” for example.) They’re all short and to the point. I think this structure works well for a bank.

Although it feels obvious, defining a simple navigation structure such as this one probably required many hours of meetings. I’ve often been in such meetings. Team members will go through many ideas, trying various terms to see how well they describe the concepts they’re pointing to and how they relate to each other.

One of the words that inevitably comes up in such discussions is “Information.” For example, while I don’t have insights into the particular structure above, I can guarantee the team that designed it spent many hours discussing the term “Learning;” I’d bet at some point someone suggested the label “Educational Information” instead.

I always probe such suggestions. “Information” is not a helpful term in these contexts. After all, everything in the app or website is information. It’s redundant. You could as easily say “Banking Information” or “Loan Information” — “Information” doesn’t add anything. At four syllables, it’s a long word for a navigation label — and remember it never stands by itself, but always as part of a duo. (“Educational Information” has nine syllables — much too long for a label in most cases.) Some folks try to get around this by shortening it to “Info” instead:

Whether it be “Info” or “Information,” you’re not telling me anything useful by including it. Whenever you hear it suggested for a navigation structure, take a step back and examine the overall organization scheme. The appearance of “information” may be a sign that you’re trying to do too much with that one part of the environment.

Towards a More Resilient Internet

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

So opens John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, published in 1996. The web was young then, and many of us who were on it thought it would ultimately transform the world. This document captured the spirit of the times perfectly; it’s worth revisiting now to get a sense of how far the zeitgeist has shifted.

Today, Barlow’s Declaration comes across as naively idealistic. “You have no sovereignty where we gather” has proven to be bunk. China — the world’s most populous country — has been censoring its people’s access to the internet with impunity. And now the U.S.’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to vote on dismantling a set of rules that protect the neutrality of traffic on the internet. Doing so would open the doors for network operators to vary how they handle traffic to particular properties, favoring some over others. Not quite censorship, but still a worrisome development.

Even if the FCC opts to not overturn the current set of protections now, I wonder about their long-term viability. The system’s incentives are working against neutrality. Access to the internet in the U.S. is provided by a small group of large companies incentivized to generate higher profits, and arbitrage of the network’s traffic represents a viable path to achieving them. These companies have the means to sway politicians towards their interests.

Ultimately, the problem before us is not how to convince politicians to put aside the interests of large corporations in favor of the commonweal, but how to change the system so questions of network integrity and resilience are taken out of the political realm entirely.

Having to delegate to the political system authority over the neutrality of traffic on the internet highlights a flaw in its design. The internet was envisioned as a commons funded by taxpayers and academia; its designers had no reasons to suspect the network operators’ motives. As it stands now, too much of its traffic flows through too few control points, and the operators of those control points are not disinterested parties.

The Ladder of Abstraction

You may have heard that dogs and cats only see in black and white. That’s wrong; these animals are dichromatic, which means they have limited color vision. What is true, however, is that their vision is different from ours. Other animals, such as some bats and rodents, are indeed monochromatic: they only see in black and white and shades of grey.

Before you start feeling smug, consider the limitations of your own sensory system. Some other animals, such as boa constrictors, can see infrared light, which is invisible to you and me. And you know about dogs’ sense of smell, which is much more refined than ours.

The point is that we don’t perceive the world as it is, we perceive it as our senses allow us to see it. Our sensory system presents to us an abstracted view of reality. (This suits me fine; our sensory system has evolved to allow creatures like ourselves to survive and thrive in environments like ours.) And on top of this already abstracted view, we layer another abstraction: language.

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Form and Context

If you ask people what they think about when they think about design, many will tell you about things they either like or dislike. You’ll hear about their iPhone, their car, their office, a chair, a book, a poster. It’s always about a thing — a form that exists in the world.

This shouldn’t surprise us. We can relate to forms. We see them, touch them, hold them, get into and out of them. They’re “real”; we tacitly understand where we stand in relation to them.

But forms are not the only product of design. Things don’t exist in a vacuum; they always address — and alter — a broader context. The coffee mug next to your computer is a response to a context that includes your biological need to ingest liquids, the mechanics of your body, a culture that has taught you to prefer coffee hot, etc. A chair hints at a particular course of action, and its dimensions and materials respond to physical, economic, and social constraints. A room with a video camera in it changes your behavior. (This is why public places visibly announce their presence.)

Context is not as easy to perceive as forms are. We can’t touch context in the same way we can touch an iPhone or a coffee cup or a chair. Instead, we experience the effects of acting within a context when the forms that enable it alter our understanding and behavior.

Forms can be explicitly designed to create particular contexts. Consider Albert Speer’s design for the Nazi party rally grounds (Reichsparteitagsgelände) outside of Nuremberg:

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04062A / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04062A / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

The forms that made up this place were subservient to the context they were designed to create: a place where individuality was discouraged, and social hierarchies and rules were reified. This, in service to reinforcing a broader context — that of the Third Reich — which produced the conditions that called for the creation of the Reichsparteitagsgelände to begin with.

So context births forms and forms alter context in a cycle of constant adjustment. The Reichsparteitagsgelände (along with many other intentionally designed forms) was created by — and helped create — a context which encouraged and enabled unspeakable atrocities. When the war was over, the forms that had enabled this context had to be eradicated:

swastika-explosion.gif

Regardless of what area of design you work in, the forms you produce also respond to, uphold, or address particular contexts. Are you clear on what they are? How do you know?

Walt Disney on Profits

“I knew if this business was ever to get anywhere, if this business was ever to grow, it could never do it by having to answer to someone unsympathetic to its possibilities, by having to answer to someone with only one thought or interest, namely profits. For my idea of how to make profits has differed greatly from those who generally control businesses such as ours. I have blind faith in the policy that quality, tempered with good judgment and showmanship, will win against all odds.”

— Walt Disney

Navigation Sets the Stage

When you define a navigation system for a website or app, you establish the boundaries of a small world; you set the stage where interactions will happen and enable movement within a constrained space of possibilities. The range should be obvious to the people who will use the space; they should be clear on what the space is and what they can do here.

Let’s say you establish a primary navigation bar that includes the following choices:

Products | Services | Solutions

What’s the difference between products and services, or services and solutions? What about products and solutions? The answers will obviously depend on the context within which the organization operates; a power utility operates in a different context than a company that sells refurbished smartphones.

Most people probably don’t have a clear distinction between these things in their mind. When faced with these choices, they need to click around a bit to get a sense for the sort of things that are in each section. (“Oh, that’s what they mean by ‘solutions’ here.”) As the person explores the possibility space, he or she gains a clearer understanding of what each area includes and excludes. These terms (“products”, “services”, “solutions”) don’t call to mind any particular context on their own; you’ve probably seen them used to describe many different types of organizations’ offerings.

Contrast this with a navigation bar that includes these choices:

Balls | Bats | Mitts

Taken individually, none of these choices give you a definitive understanding of what the context is. (There are many types of balls in the world used in a variety of different contexts; the word ‘balls’ could refer to any one of them.) However, taken as a group, these choices suggest you’re dealing with a particular context: that of baseball. They also bring to mind clear images; it’s easier for you to visualize “bats” than “products.” As a concept, “products” sits too far up the ladder of abstraction.

As designers of information environments, we’re called to define the right level of abstraction for the terms that appear in navigation systems. More concrete terms will bring up clearer images but will be less inclusive of other elements, leading to a proliferation of options (and thus risking a paradox of choice situation.) However, using more abstract terms will require more exploration from users, particularly if they are unfamiliar with the context the organization operates within.

When we pick labels for navigation structures, we’re creating distinctions — drawing boundaries — that will affect how people understand the possibilities before them. We must do so conscientiously.

TAOI: A Taxonomy of Trust

The architecture of information:

The Trust Project is a consortium of news organizations that aims to “build a more trustworthy and trusted press.” They’ve defined a taxonomy of “Trust Indicators” to help add context to news stories so readers can get a sense of where the information is coming from. The taxonomy consists of eight core indicators:

  • Best Practices
  • Author/Reporter Expertise
  • Type of Work
  • Citations and References
  • Methodology
  • Local Reporting
  • Diverse Voices
  • Actionable Feedback

These indicators in turn have attributes that account for such details as the publication’s corrections policy, its ownership structure, authors’ area(s) of expertise, and so on. The full list is available in the Trust Project’s website.

As part of its initiatives to fight fake news, Facebook has said it will begin adding these credibility attributes to news stories. This should allow its users to make more informed decisions about their sources for news.

Improving contextual awareness is always a good thing. I hope this initiative helps curtail the spread of misinformation by increasing transparency.

Tools of the UX Trade

The tools we use when we design have an important influence in the work we produce. Conversely, sometimes the work we want to do can’t be carried out with the tools we have. This nudges us to either look to other fields for inspiration or invent new tools altogether.

As a child, the architect Frank Gehry was fascinated with fish. This fascination carried through to his work. In the 1980s, Gehry started producing fish-shaped lamps, and eventually won a contract to produce a large fish-shaped sculpture for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Sculpture by Frank Gehry, Barcelona (1992.) Image by Till Niermann, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia. (https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barcelona_Gehry_fish.jpg)
Sculpture by Frank Gehry, Barcelona (1992.) Image by Till Niermann, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.

Gehry’s team needed to figure out how the fish would be built. Traditional architectural drawings are best when describing buildings composed of flat planes and volumes, but this structure’s undulating surfaces were anything but. The standard tools of trade trade weren’t going to cut it.

One of Gehry’s collaborators suggested they look at a software tool called CATIA, which had been developed by French aerospace firm Dassault Systems for designing aircraft. CATIA allowed Gehry’s team to delegate the complex calculations to computers, and made the fish structure a reality.

CATIA also opened new possibilities for the firm — and the field of architecture more broadly. Buildings such as the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles wouldn’t have been possible to design and build using traditional tools. Introducing new tools into the mix made a new type of building possible, and the field of architecture hasn’t been the same since.

Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., by Frank Gehry. Image by Visitor7, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia. (https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walt_Disney_Concert_Hall-1.jpg)
Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., by Frank Gehry. Image by Visitor7, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.

When I look at the tools UX designers use, I mostly see software aimed at designing screen-based user interfaces. Applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch are excellent at rendering forms on flat screens, but not much more than that. This constrains possibilities; as the cliche says, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail… and these apps are all hammers.

We also lack tools for exploring the semantic structures and relationships that underpin information environments. The closest we come is whiteboards and diagramming apps such as Visio and OmniGraffle. I’ve met many taxonomists whose primary tool is Excel; software designed for manipulating numbers!

There are clear gaps in this space. It’s surprising, given that the focus of UX design is often software itself. Why haven’t we produced tools suited to the needs of designing information environments? Is it a matter of the market not being big enough? Or do they exist and I’m just not aware of them? What tools from other fields could we adopt to meet our needs?

A New Notebook

When I was a child, one of my favorite times of the year was the final few weeks of vacation, just before school started. I loved buying school supplies with my mom — especially new pens and notebooks. (I still love buying pens and notebooks!) It was a great feeling: a chance for a clean start.

Well, not completely clean. I’d still be going to the same school. I had an idea of who my classmates and teachers would be. I knew the schedule, and the topics we’d be studying. But! This was the year I’d make it happen. And for now, I had a blank slate. (Or at least, a blank notebook.) Exciting!

A few weeks after school started, my mood would be different. The notebook now had marks in it, and I had a long list of things I needed to do. The excitement was gone; the sense of possibility replaced with a feeling of being overwhelmed. It would take a while for me to feel comfortable with the new routines and challenges. Then, with time, things would settle: neither open-ended excitement nor pressure from being overwhelmed — just a sense of getting things done.

The beginning of every new undertaking has a particular type of energy. An open-ended sense of possibility. This energy allows us to step into an uncertain future. There’s a challenge ahead and we don’t know exactly how things will turn out — but we have wits, some knowledge, some structure, and tools.

The energy-of-beginning is important to getting things rolling, but we can’t linger in it. We need to get to work; to become productive. For me this means establishing near-term goals, work practices to achieve them, and habits that allow the work to become part of my daily routine. The quicker this happens, the easier it is to replace the energy-of-beginning with the energy-of-generating.

This energy-of-generating has a particular character of its own, one I’ve grown to relish. Whatever I’ve achieved has been because I’ve found ways of transitioning from the blank notebook to the (messier, less open-ended) notebook-in-progress. I’ve learned to love it for its own sake. It, too, will pass — but for the time being, it makes good things possible.