What is an Information Environment?

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll know I often use the phrase “information environment.” This isn’t a word pair you’re likely to encounter in many other contexts, so I think it’s worthwhile to peg it down. The phrase is composed of two relatively common words: information and environment. You probably have ideas of what these are, but let’s first clarify what I mean by them here.

If you’re like most people, the word environment will evoke the rainforest, whales breaching the surface of the ocean, or smokestacks spewing filth into the atmosphere. In other words, ecological images. This is not surprising since we often see environment in phrases such as “protect the environment” or “save the environment” or “environmental pollution.”

The natural environment is certainly an example of what I mean by environment. However, I also mean it a bit more generally. When I say environment, I mean the surroundings of a system or organism, especially the aspects of those surroundings that influence the system’s or organism’s behavior. This latter condition is important; you could say your surroundings include all of the solar system, but the orbit of Jupiter has very little influence on your day-to-day actions. (Unless you’re into astrology, in which case I’d argue that the belief that the orbit of Jupiter influences your actions is what influences your actions, not the planet’s orbit per se. But I digress…)

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The Value of Mapping Semantic Environments

You hear about it all the time: an accomplished designer joins a large company to lead their design efforts, only to leave disillusioned and frustrated after a relatively short stint. These are smart people and great designers. They’ve come into the situation with the best intentions and have put their credibility on the line. This is not the outcome they wanted.

When you talk to them, they’ll tell you corporate politics ground them down, or that there’s too much inertia in the company, or that design isn’t as valued in the organization as they thought it would be, or that they’ve lost executive support. These things may all be true, but they’re all symptoms of a deeper issue: the leaders (and their teams) haven’t mastered the organization’s semantic environments.

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Event Report: WIAD Tampa 2018

Yesterday we celebrated the sixth World IA Day around the world. This one-day event was organized by the Information Architecture Institute and executed by local teams in fifty-six locations in five continents. I was honored to be asked to participate in the local event in Tampa, Florida.

I’d visited the Tampa/St. Petersburg metroplex before, but most of these visits had centered on Busch Gardens’s (amazing) roller coasters. This was my first time downtown, and I was delighted by it. While Tampa is an automobile-centric city, downtown is pedestrian-friendly: it features large sidewalks, good crossing signals, and lots of public spaces with shade. Buildings are a mix of new offices and structures of historical importance, mostly from the 1920s-1960s. Many meet the street with human-scaled open spaces that encourage strolling and lounging.

Minarets of the University of Tampa, seen from Kiley Gardens.
Minarets of the University of Tampa, seen from Kiley Gardens.

Tampanians are (rightly) proud of their city and its history, which (as with so many other cities in the Southern U.S.) revolves around the struggle for civil rights. I know all this because part of the event’s program included a two-hour walking tour of downtown led by Beth Galambos and Carlisle Stoup. The tour was documented in an extraordinary book produced by the WIAD Tampa Bay team that presents historical highlights of some of Tampa’s most important buildings (both present and gone.)

St. Paul A.M.E. Church, a locus of the civil rights movement in Tampa.
St. Paul A.M.E. Church, a locus of the civil rights movement in Tampa.

One of these buildings was the venue for the event itself, the auditorium at the John F. Germany Public Library. The auditorium is an endearing 1960s egg-shaped structure nestled on a terrace between the two blocks of the library’s main buildings.

The auditorium at the John F. Germany Public Library.
The auditorium at the John F. Germany Public Library.

My friend Dan Klyn and I had the privilege of delivering opening and closing keynotes respectively. We also shared the stage with one of the auditorium’s designers, the architect Gus Paras, for a short lunchtime panel about people’s relationship with our environments, natural and artificial. That conversation and the keynotes balanced out the program.

But the focus was on Tampa itself as a built environment, and how that environment has changed over time. Some buildings have been chosen for preservation, while the fate of others has been left to market forces. Few serve their original purposes. (Even some that are barely fifty years old.) All are evolving in various ways.

Site of a former Woolworth's store where lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s ushered a new era of race relations in Tampa. The building is currently being renovated.
Site of a former Woolworth’s store where lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s ushered a new era of race relations in Tampa. The building is currently being renovated.

The library itself is one of these changing environments: a condominium is set to replace the annex, one of the two blocks that nestles the auditorium. A library director explained that a growing percentage of their collection is becoming digital, so they’re re-considering how they use their physical environment. This was a good reminder that as we de-materialize — move key social interactions from physical environments to information environments — we must be mindful of the impact of that move on both types of environments.

Lobby sculpture at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Lobby sculpture at the Tampa Museum of Art.

The global theme for WIAD this year was “IA for Good.” The Tampa team’s focus on their city’s physical environment was a brilliant way of engaging a broad range of people in the conversation; I had the opportunity to meet not just designers, researchers, and implementers, but also interested citizens. What more “good” than that? Kudos to the Tampa Bay team and especially to organizer Amy Espinosa who did a fantastic job of bringing everyone together around a singular vision, and then executing it.

Reducing Ambiguity in Labels

When my family and I moved to the U.S., we left some bulky stuff behind in storage. Last year we contracted a company to ship it to our home in California. Shipping big, heavy things internationally requires a lot more paperwork than mailing a small package, so in the process, I’ve been exposed to lots of forms.

Earlier today I was filling out one of them, and hit a snag: there was a field labeled “Shipper Name.” I was confused. Why would the shipper send me a form with a field that required me to state who the shipper is? I emailed them, and their response floored me: I was supposed to enter my name in the field.

As an information architect, I’ve seen many ambiguous labels. But this one was special: here was a case where the label had exactly opposite meanings to both parties involved. To me, the shipper is the shipping agency; them. To them, the shipper is the customer who’s contracted the shipping service; me. Because it’s their form, they used the “Shipper Name” label expecting that it’d be clear to me, but it wasn’t — and couldn’t be.

What to do in such cases? It’s obvious: the form’s designers need to approach the problem from the perspective of the person who will be filling it out, not from the company’s perspective. It may then be less clear to the company’s people, but they aren’t the ones tasked with filling the thing out. Whenever faced with an ambiguous label such as this one, re-write it to make it clear to the person who will use it.

The Stream

Starting in the Sixteenth century, European aristocrats built Wunderkammern: collections of exotic objects such as antlers, paintings, weapons, mineral specimens, and mechanical knick-knacks. According to Umberto Eco’s memorable description, in a Wunderkammer “a unicorn’s horn would be found next to the copy of a Greek statue, and, later, among mechanical crèches and wondrous automata, cocks of precious metal that sang, clocks with a procession of little figures that paraded at noon.” These bricolage samplings of the wonders of reality were meant to impress: The more arcane the collection, the greater the power of the collector. The effect can be dizzying, even in our age of one-click ordering and overnight delivery.

The Web doesn’t dictate how we should organize information. As a result, all sorts of structural frameworks have been tried online. One, in particular, has come to dominate our attention over the past decade or so: the stream, an endless sequence of seemingly random curiosities in the form of posts, messages, tweets, memes, events, etc. These morsels are mostly non-sequiturs: One moment it’s a job posting, the next a photograph of a cat, a review of a fountain pen, a visit to an abandoned Soviet monument, a religious chain letter, a supplication to fund somebody’s medical procedure, a poem by Langston Hughes, an optical illusion. The only context they share is the place where you encounter them: Twitter, Facebook, Medium, YouTube, etc. These information environments have become immensely popular; as a result, streams are now central to many people’s experience of the Web. (It’s very likely these words came to your attention via one of them.)

From a formal perspective, streams are not new. (Email inboxes, for example, precede the Web.) However, in time they’ve changed both in character and pervasiveness. For one thing, our streams used to be more intentional; we would proactively curate them. (I still use — and prefer — an RSS reader to get my news.) For another, they used to be (mostly) chronological, the expectation being that whatever was demanding your attention was the latest on the subject. (Not the most important, mind you — only the latest.) This has changed. Streams are now increasingly curated and sequenced by algorithms: engines of titillation and outrage designed to keep us engaged (and buying); wondrous automata that assemble mechanical crèches on the fly — just for us — from fragments of our friends’ lives, the news of the day, the latest TV show, celebrity gossip, ephemera. Trifles accreting haphazardly in a cognitive cabinet of curiosities. Expressions of power — but not our own.

Prescriptive and Descriptive Labels

Like many office buildings, the one where I work has a pair of similar — yet different — rooms on every floor. The doors to each room have signs on them:

These labels should look familiar; they’re common nomenclature in many cultures. They indicate that these two rooms serve similar functions, but are meant to be used differently.

We’ve internalized the “men” and “women” labels in this context to mean there are toilet facilities in these rooms. That’s their functional role, which both have in common. The difference dictated by this labeling system is in who should be using each room for this function: one room is set aside for women and another for men. In other words, these are prescriptive labels; they’re nudging us towards a particular behavior in the environment.

On the ground floor of this same building, there is a coffee shop. It too has a pair of restrooms. The labeling system used to describe these restrooms is very different from the one used on the upper floors:

These labels are not attempting to prescribe who should be using the rooms; they merely describe their contents. Not all of their contents, of course; the labels’ designer has chosen to highlight one particular feature of one of the toilets. One of these rooms has a urinal, which is impractical for women. Still, men or women can use either room; one of the rooms just has an additional feature that probably won’t be used by one set of users. Because they’re merely describing the contents of the room, I think of these as descriptive labels.

The traditional way of labeling restrooms has been to divide them using the men/women dichotomy. But culture is evolving, and in some places gender distinctions are becoming less rigid. This raises issues with this prescriptive labeling scheme; some people may be uncomfortable using one or the other room based on expectations of traditional gender roles. The descriptive labeling scheme overcomes the issue by giving agency to the user: the individual gets to decide which room to enter not based on roles suggested by the environment, but by the functional features of each room.

Sounds ideal, right? However, I must note there’s a crucial difference between these restrooms that is important to our discussion: The rooms in the upper floors are communal (meant to be used by more than one person at a time) while the ones in the coffee shop are individual (meant to be used by only one person at a time.) This complicates matters significantly since the issue is then not just about personal choice. Many people in our culture would feel uncomfortable sharing a small restroom with members of other genders, making the descriptive labeling scheme challenging to implement in that case.

When we define a taxonomy, we’re creating distinctions. It’s been said that all taxonomies are political, and few are more so than those that suggest identities to people. With complex issues such a gender, all approaches come with trade-offs. Conscientious design requires we consider whether we’re being descriptive or prescriptive, and the implications of either approach.

Structure and Change

I’m currently re-visiting Douglas Adams’s wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy.” In coming back to these books after many years, I was reminded of a quote by Adams that’s dear to my heart:

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Deadlines are important in book publishing. Putting ink on paper is irreversible — and costly. Packaging it is costly. Transporting it for distribution is costly. Shelving it in bookstores is costly. Therefore, making changes after the thing is done is mostly out of the question. There has to be a point in the process where the writer’s work is “done”; a deadline that triggers all these other interdependent parts of the process into motion. It’s a big deal. (Adams was famously late in delivering manuscripts to his editors.)

For most of our history, designers have worked to create artifacts that abide by the laws of physics in the same ways that books do. If you’re designing a wooden chair, someone eventually needs to cut the wood. At that point, you can’t take it back without taking some loss. The same is true for posters, miniskirts, teapots, automobiles, and — especially — the machinery necessary to produce them at scale. As a result, deadlines loom large in the world of design. Designers come to the process with the assumption that there will be a point when their work is “done” — it’s crossed a threshold when things must move on to the next stage in the process.

This is still true for many areas of design, but less so for information architecture. Information environments are never “done” in the same way that a book is done. Information environments are dynamic and interactive. They’re made of malleable stuff: code. Powerful feedback mechanisms are part of their very essence. It does information environments disfavor to think of them as fixed, static things. Deadlines are still important when designing information environments, but they must be put in the right context; they don’t signal the end of the work but a change in focus.

In the introduction to The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — the omnibus of all five novels, which is what I’m reading – Adams traces the evolution of the story as it moved from radio to books, to computer games, to the movies, and so on. The Hitchhiker’s Guide kept changing as it migrated to a new medium. Some versions are more definitive than others (the radio play and the novels being the leading contenders), but it’s hard to say any one of them is the “real” story. (Alas, it’s now done; Adams died in 2001.)

Information environments are only ever “done” when they stop being relevant; when the people who manage them stop investing in their continuing evolution. Those of us who design them need always to be thinking about the implications of our work down the line. We may think the object of our work is a taxonomy or some other structural construct, but the thing we’re working on at any given moment is never the final structural form of the environment. It’s only the articulation of a particular snapshot of structural stability in a process of continuous change. The system that shapes these structural relationships is a primary object of interest in information architecture.

Semantic Environments

Media theorist Neil Postman (1931-2003) said communication happens in semantic environments. This is a useful concept for us to understand how people collaborate meaningfully. Let’s look at what these environments are and how they work.

Many of us think communication is something that happens like a game of table tennis: One person says something, another person listens, processes what has been said, formulates a response in their mind, and then utters the response. This restarts the process: the other person listens, processes, formulates, responds. Back and forth, over and over again.

Instead of being like table tennis, Postman says, communication is something that happens to us, much like growth happens to a plant when it’s exposed to an environment that includes sunlight, water, and nutrients. You can think of those things as the plant’s physical environment, which makes its growth possible.

Communication, too, requires an environment that has particular features. They include the social relations between the actors that participate in the communication, their goals in the interaction, and the particular vocabulary they use in that situation. Postman calls this set of conditions the semantic environment the conversation happens within.

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