The Informed Life With Heather Hedden

Episode 40 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Heather Hedden, an information management consultant specialized in taxonomies, controlled vocabularies, metadata, and indexing. Heather wrote The Accidental Taxonomist, a guide to the discipline of taxonomy creation and management. In this conversation, we discuss what taxonomies are and why they’re important for organizations.

So what is a taxonomy? As Heather succinctly put it, it’s “a set of terms, words, or phrases that describe concepts that are used to tag or index documents or content.” These sets can be organized in various ways. Creating such structures is a specialized field, but one that few people train for specifically. (Hence the “accidental” part of the book’s title.)

Heather is one of these people; her background is in journalism. I asked her what drew her to taxonomy work, and this was her reply:

Well, it’s analytical and it’s a little bit creative too. I mean, how are you going to describe a concept? What words will you use? What synonyms should you use? What else will you need to relate that concept to? Should we include it or should we not? And then at the same time, we learn about all different kinds of subject areas.

Among the things we learn when doing taxonomy work is the difference between concepts and the labels that describe them. In the interview, we delved into how to deal with this key distinction:

Yeah, well, the concept is an idea, and you first have to agree what… and you can give it a temporary name, and decide, “yeah, we need this in the taxonomy. There’s content about it. And people want to look it up.” And then, once you’ve done that, you go a little further with it and you were suddenly realize, “Oh, there two different names,” or, “we could call it this, or you could call it that…” Well, especially since we’re talking about terms that are usually not one word, there is a noun and an adjective or maybe two adjectives. I mean, there’s more that can be rearranged. And sometimes you can take up a little bit of time to look into that. I’ve even just gone searching on the web and seeing by usage counts, which is more common. And then of course talking… if you have access to the users or stakeholders, those involved seeing what they think, or looking up in the content itself, the content that will be tagged or indexed, what’s more prevalent. I would say those are, those are the kind of three methods that I most often use to try to decide how something’s going to be worded. And then what makes sense to be kind of consistent in style with the rest of the taxonomy.

I learned a lot from reading The Accidental Taxonomist, and from talking about it with Heather. I hope you get as much value from the conversation as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 40: Heather Hedden on Taxonomies

Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

TAOI: Gmail’s New Conceptual Model

The architecture of information:

Yesterday, Google announced an upcoming Gmail redesign. Here’s an overview:

As you can see, these aren’t cosmetic tweaks, but significant changes to Gmail’s structure. Where previously the app aspired to be a great email client, now its stated goal is to be “your new home for work.” This goal reflects three fundamental premises:

  • Much of what many of us do for “work” consists of coordinating with and informing each other
  • Most of these communications happen over digital channels (especially now that many of us are working “remotely”)
  • Email is no longer the only (or even primary) channel for these communications
Continue reading

Structure Changes More Slowly Than Look-and-feel

Jeremy Burge on Twitter:

This comparison offers a great illustration of a design principle we covered in the fourth edition of the polar bear book: structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel.

Visually, these two screenshots look quite different. But they express the same conceptual models: a file/folder metaphor (and object-container relationship), windows that set aside portions of the display, a menu across the top of the screen (with the same menu items, even), etc. These structural constructs have endured for decades.

However, their presentation has changed as technologies and public tastes evolved. The original Macintosh featured a 512 x 314 pixel black-and-white display, which imposed many constraints on the system’s visual style. As computer displays became more capable, designers had more leeway with the presentation layer. This is the system in the early 2000s:

Mac OS X Aqua user interface.
Screenshot from Wikipedia.

Again, very different visually — but the underlying structure is recognizable. A user from 1984 would have little trouble learning the newer version three decades later.

As I’ve mentioned before, digital products don’t change uniformly; they manifest pace layers. Changing visuals is cheap; changing the underlying structures is expensive. Users accept visual changes more readily than structural changes. As a result, designers and stakeholders must take greater care when changing the structure of digital products.

Do You See the Big Picture?

Seth Godin, writing in his blog:

If you experience lousy service or poor quality, it’s probably not solely the fault of the person who talked to you on the phone, dealt with you at the counter or assembled your product.

It’s the boss.

The boss didn’t design the system properly, didn’t align incentives, didn’t invest in training. The boss isn’t thinking hard about hiring the right people. And the boss isn’t listening.

I’m glad to see someone with Mr. Godin’s prominence highlighting the benefits of having a systemic perspective. Many people still think of the products and services they interact with (or worse, manage) as though they exist on their own, in a vacuum.

Of course, they don’t: All products and services are manifestations of systems that influence their performance. The front-line customer experience is the outcome of such a system. To improve the offering, improve the system. But you can’t improve the system if you don’t see or understand it. You must make it tangible to make it “real.”

Design can help: systems mapping and modeling are established practices. What’s needed is for “the boss” to understand that design doesn’t start with giving form to products/services. Instead, it’s a holistic practice that can bring coherence and alignment at a much deeper level – if it starts at a much earlier stage in the process.

Are you “the boss”? Do you understand the systems you’re participating in or creating? Do you know the degree to which your products/services are enabling such systems? If you lack visualizations that help you understand these systems, ask yourself: what do I need to do to see the big picture?

Systems design and the front line | Seth’s Blog

The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

A fantastic find (via The Long Now Foundation): the Internet Archive is hosting a MacOS System 7 emulator running a copy of The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog. The Catalog is a hypertext version of the venerable Whole Earth Catalog. It was published in 1988, several years before the invention of the World Wide Web.

Opening screen from The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog
A screenshot from The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

This find is interesting for several reasons. For one thing, the Whole Earth Catalog is culturally significant: many makers and geeks (myself included) cite it as an influence. Even though it first existed in print, the Catalog wasn’t meant to be read linearly: even in book format, you’d skip around to read granular content items organized by subject. (Here’s a PDF scan of the first edition from 1968.) The Catalog was a perfect application for a hypertext before hypertext technology was widely available.

And that’s where another interesting angle comes in: the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog was implemented in Hypercard, a hypertext authoring and navigation system that came bundled with early Macs. Hypercard gave many people (myself included) their first experience of using and creating hypertexts. I learned a lot from this fantastic software, and reference it often with students and clients. Most haven’t heard of Hypercard or seen it, which makes this emulation a treasure.

The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

The Informed Life With Stephen P. Anderson

Episode 39 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Stephen P. Anderson. Stephen is a design leader focused on workforce learning and organizational development. He’s also the founder of The Mighty Minds Club, a new method-of-the-month club that aims “to help product teams work through difficult situations.” Stephen recently co-authored a book with Karl Fast called Figure It Out, which is about how we can transform information to increase understanding. Our conversation focused on this subject.

I’ve known Stephen for many years, mainly from our interactions in the design community, so I was intrigued to learn how he came to this topic:

I became bored with a lot of the tactical stuff and became interested more in strategy and business topics, became more interested in human behavior and psychology, and why won’t people do the things we want them to do? Why won’t people would click on the things that we want them to click? And so that led to my first book in around 2010 or so, which is called Seductive Interaction Design. And also around the same time I self-published the Mental Notes card deck, which a lot of people know me for as well.

So again, very much a focus on human behavior. So that was about 10 years ago. And over that time, one shift I’ve gone through was marked by probably a seminal talk for me, “From Paths to Sandboxes,” where I started shifting my thinking from shaping the path that I want people to follow to creating the sandbox or the conditions where people play and learn.

And so my mindset shifted from that of a transaction and getting something I want, to how do I create the conditions for us to learn and work together? And I think that ethos and that idea has affected everything I’ve done since. And in many ways, the new book, even though it’s about working with information as a resource, there’s that ethos or that idea behind it, which is how do we pause, slow down, and figure things out individually, but also collectively.

Organizing our information environments to increase understanding is central to my work. My desire to learn about how people do this is why I started the podcast, so I was thrilled to discuss the subject with Stephen. I wish our conversation could’ve been longer. I hope you get as much value from it as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 39: Stephen P. Anderson on Cognitive Environments

Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Tour of an F-15 Jet Fighter User Interface

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen P. Anderson for The Informed Life. (Episode coming soon!) Among many other things, we discussed a concept from his new book with Karl Fast, Figure it Out: a cockpit as a key component of a pilot’s cognitive apparatus. As Stephen and Karl put it in the book, “An airplane cockpit is an environment loaded with external representations that make flying easier and safer.”

I won’t spoil the fun of our conversation here. (If you’re curious, I recommend you read the book, which is great.) I only mention it now because yesterday I saw a video that explains in detail the user interface of an F-15 jet fighter:

Among many insights in the video: getting a sense for the highly tactile nature of the physical controls of the aircraft, such as the various buttons and knobs on the control stick — including the “castle” switch and the “pickle” switch. (Yes, pickle. The fighter pilot who takes us through the cockpit explains the name’s origin.) The cockpit seems like an environment designed to reduce as much as possible the distance between the pilot’s reflexes and the jet’s actuators.

I learned a lot from this video, and was left with high expectations — it’s labeled as the first of a series called Human Interface. Subscribed.

Human Interface: What (almost) every button in an F-15C fighter’s cockpit does