A (Very) Brief Message to the Class of 2020

Last week, a colleague at CCA asked me to record a short video for the graduates of our 2020 cohort. The format of the final presentation — a collage of messages from several people — constrained the length of my video to around twenty seconds. That’s not much time. After much editing, I came up with something that fit within the prescribed length. But I have no such time constraints in this blog, so I thought I’d share the more extended version of what I wrote here:

Dear graduates: Congratulations! I won’t pretend it’s not weird to greet you over a prerecorded video on this important occasion.

You’re graduating under extraordinary circumstances. Your ability to persevere and move forward in these challenging times is a sign of your strength and character. These attributes will serve you well in your careers and your lives.

You have my best wishes as you embark on new adventures. And again, congratulations on your achievement.

I have great respect for students who are graduating during this time of uncertainty. They’ve faced significant disruptions in their studies and are about to enter the job market at a tough time. It’s easy to become dispirited under these conditions, and anyone would understand if they chose to put things on hold for a while. As I’ve reminded my students this year, we’ll remember their cohort as one that found ways of overcoming tremendous obstacles to achieve their goals. The pandemic offers many tests of character; there’s much credit to those who pull through.

TAOI: The Prioritization of Search Results in Apple Apps

The architecture of information:

An insightful blog post by Chris Hynes examines the prioritization of search results across various Apple software applications:

All across macOS and iOS, when you search for something, the ordering of results in most cases is:

  • A top hit (unclear how this is generated)
  • Suggestions (unclear how this is generated)
  • Your own data that you spent valuable time entering

The post includes examples from Maps, Safari, and Books, illustrated with screenshots.

Like much of Apple’s software, these apps are easy to learn and use. The de-prioritization of the user’s own information in search results seems like a curious oversight. I wonder if there’s an internal policy dictating this hierarchy across the organization, or if the individual product teams arrived at the same structure independently?

Whatever the case, it’s a good illustration of how information architecture decisions affect the user experience.

Why is my own data least important in search? (via Pixel Envy)

Effects of the Pandemic on Podcast Listening

The Verge reports:

People are changing how they listen to Spotify as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced in its latest earnings release today. Spotify says that it has met its forecasts in the three-month period ending March 31st, but noted that people’s daily routines are changing. “Morning routines have changed significantly,” says Spotify. “Every day now looks like the weekend.”

The report clarifies that the impact is clearer on podcasts than on music. This corresponds with my experience as a podcast listener and producer. With regards to the former, I now have less “free” time I can devote to listening to podcasts. With regards to the latter, stats on my own podcast are lower since the lockdown started.

Like talk radio, podcasts are a great way to get information while doing something else that doesn’t require all of our attention. Commuting is one obvious use case, but there are others, such as doing household chores. Many commutes are now gone, and while there are now more opportunities to do stuff around the house, we’re less likely to do so alone. Music is easy to enjoy in a group setting, but listening to podcasts is mostly an individual activity, and those of us who live with other people now have less time to multitask on our own.

Spotify earnings: ‘Every day now looks like the weekend’

The Informed Life With Ren Pope

Episode 34 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Ren Pope. Ren is a Principal at Info-Do, which offers data, information, and knowledge architecture consulting. He’s worked in these domains for the last 25 years or so, and has also taught colleagues how to do these things through workshops and presentations. Our conversation focused on ontology — in Ren’s words, “the study of things and how they relate to other things” – and why organizations need to know about it:

if you have a very complex subject where your employees, your clients, your stakeholders, can’t wrap their heads around, then you might use ontological thinking. You may not need an entire formal ontology, but you may need to apply ontological thinking to that effort to be able to understand it.

Recent interviews at The Informed Life have veered far afield from information architecture. This conversation with Ren touches on subjects that are central to the discipline. I hope you find this episode valuable.

The Informed Life Episode 34: Ren Pope on Ontologies

Worth Your Attention

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

Internal and External Language

One of the keys to designing an effective information system is defining the concepts people must understand to use the system. What are its key components? How do they relate to each other? How do they differ? What should we call them?

This last question is especially important. The words we use to label system elements affect how people understand them and the system as a whole. Terms people are familiar with can make the system more learnable. However, familiar terms may also raise undesirable expectations.

Proposing “good” language requires that we understand both the system and the people who need to use it. How do these people see the conceptual domain? Do they already have words or phrases to describe comparable features or functionality? Are any of these terms ambiguous or otherwise misleading?

Answering these questions is why we do research. Concept maps are useful artifacts in these early research stages of projects. Although these maps are abstract (and therefore potentially confusing), they can elicit feedback on whether we’re creating useful distinctions and labeling them with understandable terms.
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Making the Company’s Vision Tangible

An article in the Harvard Business Review offers a reminder of the importance of having a clear company vision. It also makes the point that you don’t have to be the CEO to contribute to that vision:

A simple, bold, inspirational vision can feel almost magical: it brings people throughout the company together around a common goal and provides a focal point for developing strategies to achieve a better future. Unfortunately, however, building a vision has become more associated with a company’s top-level leadership than the managers in the rest of the organization.

The article offers three ways in which managers and leaders can help form the organization’s vision:

  • By helping the CEO in his or her vision-building efforts
  • By translating the vision to make it relevant to individual teams
  • By catalyzing a vision from the bottom-up

It’s not mentioned in the article, but I’ll say it again: making the vision more tangible is one of the great (and often, unacknowledged) roles of design. Many companies see their design functions as tactical. They see designers as the people who make engineering’s work more engaging, appealing, or usable. This perspective misses an important part of the value of design.

At a more strategic level, design offers organizations the ability to make possibilities tangible. It’s not just about production work; it’s also about helping the organization test what can otherwise be abstract or ambiguous directions. It’s one thing to tell people about your vision for the future. It’s quite another to demonstrate what that vision will look and feel like with real artifacts you can put in front of people, to test new ways of being in the world.

The power to do so is latent in all design organizations. Actualizing it calls for a reframing of what designers do. Production work is a significant contribution, but helping make visions tangible (and testable!) is a more valuable strategic role for design.

You Don’t Have to Be CEO to Be a Visionary Leader

TAOI: Better Search and Context in Figma

Meagan Gamache writing in the Figma blog:

With over 50% of Figma users identifying as non-designers, designers have embraced working with collaborators across teams—developers, product managers, researchers, marketers, and beyond. To help these teams make the most of this open environment, we’re making it easier for designers and their stakeholders to find what they’re looking for. We’re also enabling designers to provide context and navigation within their files to help teammates understand their work.


Video: Figma

First, I’m surprised to read that over 50% of Figma-users identify as non-designers. But I shouldn’t be; given its cloud-based collaboration tools, it would make sense if more people sign up to give designers feedback than to do the work themselves.

Second, working collaboratively in a cloud-based tool like Figma can be a productivity boon for teams. Problems with file naming, versioning, syncing, and location (mostly) go away. The downside is that when you have several people working on the same shared project, you can end up with lots of stuff spread out all over the place.

I’ve had trouble finding things in large Figma files in the past — even though I was part of the team that created them. I can imagine how hard it would be for people who are there to give feedback. The new features highlighted in this post sound like good steps towards alleviating these issues.

Look no further: New ways to search and provide context in Figma