As with all systems, information environments need to change over time. Who is allowed to make changes to the environment, and at what level, requires knowing the reputation of actors in the system. If you know nothing else about them, having access to a history of their past actions can help you make decisions about how trustworthy they can be. (This is why credit scores exist.)
Wikipedia is an example of an information environment that uses reputation to enable change. The system logs all changes and where they came from, regardless of whether the individuals who made those changes have an account or not. This change log is visible to everyone who uses Wikipedia so users can trace back the history of changes to an article and who made them. “Anonymous” Wikipedia editors only have agency at the level of individual articles. Other actions in the system — such as deleting articles altogether — are not open to everyone, but require some degree of reputation within the environment.
Thus, Wikipedia implements a hierarchy of authority in the system: new users can undertake some low-level actions, while higher-level actions are only available to users who have been vetted by various means, including their history of interactions within the system. This hierarchy requires means to track the reputation of the actors in the system.
“Our worldview shapes our designs and our designs reinforce the worldview they were created in. That is one of the reasons why we cannot solve today’s problems within the worldview that created these problems in the first place. Past design solutions in the form of the products, services and systems around us influence and reinforce culturally dominant perspectives, processes, structures and behaviours, mostly without questioning them.”
— Daniel Christian Wahl
The architecture of information:
It’s not just your apps in your phone that are tracking you so they can sell your attention to the highest bidder. If you live in London, soon your city will too. Per The Verge, an enormous screen installed in Picadilly Circus includes hidden cameras that will analyze aspects of the environment — the colors of cars, physical characteristics of pedestrians — to serve up advertising messages targeted to them.
Picadilly Circus is a very busy urban environment. How does this screen work? What criteria does it use to adapt content to what it senses in the environment? What effect does placing such a large information display have on the attention of drivers and pedestrians going through the place? How does it change how people understand their relationship to the environment?
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
― Steve Jobs
Your time and attention are limited, so you must be thoughtful about what you focus on.
Focusing is both important and difficult. It’s important because without focus you won’t be able to make meaningful progress towards your goals, and difficult because there are so many other demands on you. (Did you know there’s a new Star Trek show?)
You have something someone else wants: skills, talent, knowledge, experience, or just attention. People may want you to help with their project or to sell you something. You could decide to shift your focus from your own goals to help them with theirs, and in some cases, your goals and theirs may be aligned. It’s best to choose consciously.
How do you decide what to focus on? You need a clear vision of what you’re striving towards, compelling reasons to do so, and principles to guide you. If you don’t have these, you should focus on developing them. Otherwise, how can you tell what you should say “no” to?
Saying “no” isn’t easy. But consider the alternative: reaching the end of your life and regretting not having accomplished the things you set out to do. The time you spend furthering somebody else’s dreams is time you take from your own. Focus consciously on the things that are important to you.
The tools you use influence how you think about your work. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Consider the tools available to designers of information environments. Here are four that are representative:
Creating a new artboard in Sketch:
Creating a new file in Illustrator:
Creating a new file in Photoshop:
Creating a new file in Adobe Comp:
The assumption in these apps (and others like them) is that the object you’ll be working on is a screen. This is understandable; these are apps we use to work on the visual design of user interfaces. However, there’s much more to UX design than just what things will look like.
How do you express the connections between screens? Is it easy for you to explore alternative relationships between objects in the system? What tools do you use to work on the structural and conceptual models of information environments?
At the most basic level, people who use an information environment must feel safe there. Beyond that, they should feel that they’re in the right place and that the stuff they find there will be useful to them.
These objectives complement each other. Let’s say your environment sells sprockets online. A visitor looking for sprockets will feel she is in the right place if she sees useful information about sprockets, sees them categorized in ways that make sense to her, reads details that help her decide between various types, and so on. These interactions reinforce her sense of trust in the environment as she learns at her own pace about sprockets — especially if they’re thoughtfully laid out with her needs and expectations in mind. You could call this an environment structured towards elucidation: it provides substantial information organized in ways that allow visitors to educate themselves so they can make better decisions.
At the other end of this spectrum are environments structured towards persuasion. These places use various means to attempt to convince the visitor to take some action. (Usually buying something.) The environment may have the information the visitor is looking for, but it’s often nestled among marketing slogans, stock photos, “brand” materials, etc. When this approach is taken too far — with overly blunt calls-to-action, artificial pressure points, etc. — the visitor’s sense of trust in the environment (and ultimately, the brand) will erode.
Of course, these are extreme positions. Many successful environments mix elucidation and persuasion; some parts of the place may call for a higher dose of persuasion than others. The purpose of the environment also makes a big difference: a store selling sprockets will call for a different mix than a website that advertises a new movie. Visitors bring very different expectations (and tolerance) of the level of persuasion the environment will exert on them.
How do you know if your environment has the right mix? It’s easy: ask the people who use it. Can they find the stuff they’re looking for? Once they find it, does it provide the right level of information? Does the environment give them the information they need to make decisions? Can they act on those decisions? How do they feel when they’re in the environment? Do they feel like they’re being “sold,” or are they able to go about at their own pace? Etc.
Establishing the right balance between elucidation and persuasion can make a big difference in the effectiveness of an information environment. You don’t get to decide what the right balance is; your users do. Creating conditions for these people to feel respected and supported is more persuasive than any marketing slogan.
I avoid using the word design as a noun. This keeps me from lapsing into lazy thinking about the object of my practice.
Consider this sentence: “I like the design of the new iPhone.” Can you point to what “the design” is? What exactly do you like about it? “The design” is vague. A semantic cop out, fit for the pages of a general business publication — but not for practitioners.
Designers need precise language that lets us assess our decision-making process. Design is a critical part of this process. It’s how the thing arrives at its form — not a characteristic of the form itself. A verb, not a noun.
The architecture of information:
In order to respond effectively, actors in an information environment must be able to clearly perceive what is happening in the parts of the system that affect them. The Wikipedia is an information environment that is constantly changing, and editors need tools to allow them to monitor those changes. WikipediaVision is one such tool that places anonymous edits to the English Wikipedia on a map in “almost” real time, allowing editors to easily see where changes are being made from.
When discussing changes to an information environment, I sometimes hear “increasing engagement” stated as one of the project objectives. By this, stakeholders mean creating conditions that encourage people to spend more time in the environment, either through longer visits or more frequent ones, hoping this will increase revenue.
I understand the desire to increase engagement. That said, in many cases, I don’t consider useful it as a design objective. For one thing, engagement per se doesn’t signal people are getting value from the environment. (What if they’re spending more time there because they’re lost?) For another, engagement doesn’t always correlate to increased revenue. (A notable exception is environments that monetize their visitor’s attention. It’s not uncommon for these places to employ sophisticated psychological techniques to keep people engaged, even perhaps against their best interest.)
Engagement will result naturally if the environment serves people’s needs. It’s a useful tool for understanding how they respond to our design decisions and not something we should pursue for its own sake.