Designing the Frame

Information architecture is a systemic design discipline. The bulk of the work consists of establishing distinctions. These distinctions are in service to creating particular contexts that allow individuals to “find their own paths to knowledge.” As a result, the nature of the IA challenge is holistic; we’re fixing a whole so the brain gets in.

A system, you’ll recall, is a set of elements that interact with each other in particular ways that allow the whole to achieve a purpose. This calls for a “big picture” perspective: understanding the system’s purpose and how the interactions between its parts lead towards desired outcomes.

Consider an e-commerce website. A high conversion rate could be one desired outcome for such a system. Perhaps its current semantic structures aren’t doing a good enough job of supporting customers as they go through the purchasing process. The information architect will carefully consider labels and groupings that improve the customer experience. These labels and groupings establish distinctions in the customer’s mind. But the point is not the labels or groupings (or even the distinctions they create) per se; it’s how they work together as a whole to create a good experience.

Systems are important to information architecture on two levels. On one level, the thing we’re working on — what we’re enabling with our sets of distinctions — is a system. Like any other enterprise, an e-commerce website is a system. The business has inputs, outputs, and processes that transform the former into the latter. Information architecture defines the context in which these transformations happen, in much the same way that (building) architecture creates the context in which a “brick and mortar” store operates. Architects are frame-makers; they define the environments systems operate within.

On another level, the design of this frame is also a systemic undertaking; the information architecture itself is also the result of a system. The design of the context doesn’t stop when the website is put in production. Instead, the context is continuously re-created as conditions change. Perhaps customers are buying more of one type of product than another or the relationship with a supplier has ended or a new competitive threat has emerged. Whatever the case, the business is not a static entity. If the business is to serve its purposes — achieve desired outcomes — its architecture must evolve along with it.

This is an ongoing, dynamic, emergent process that requires design at a higher level of abstraction. Information architects are called to define the structure of the place, but they’re also called to define the (ongoing) processes that generate the structure of the place. Increasingly, we design not just the frame around the work, but also the systems that allow that frame to continue serving its purposes as conditions change.

The Opposite of Ideology

Different design disciplines are characterized by particular gestures that distinguish them from other design disciplines. For example, the core of graphic design is a visual gesture. This could be something rudimentary such as marks made on a wall with a piece of charcoal, or a more complex expression such as a computer-rendered artifact mechanically reproduced at scale. Whatever the case, absent a (relatively) permanent visual expression you don’t get graphic design at all; you’re dealing with a different discipline.

Different design disciplines also aspire to particular outcomes. A graphic designer wants her posters to be engaging and memorable; an architect wants his buildings to be useful and to fit with their contexts; information architects want information to be findable and understandable. In all these cases, this is achieved by establishing particular configurations of things — visual marks, forms and spaces, labels in a navigation system — that make this work different from any other.

This calls for making choices. The possibilities open to a graphic designer or an information architect are almost limitless. Designing is in some ways about narrowing down the options: selecting (from among the myriad possibilities) a set of relevant items and establishing (from among the myriad possibilities) particular relationships between these items. In other words, design is a process for establishing order in a small part of the universe, towards desired outcomes.

Consciously or not, designers bring to the process rules and techniques that help them make decisions about what to leave out and what to include. Some of these rules are dictated by physiological constraints (e.g., door openings must have a particular width if they are to allow most humans to pass), some are part of the canon for the discipline (e.g., some configurations of spaces have emerged over time as being more practical than others), others represent cultural assumptions that inform the designer’s worldview (e.g., what constitutes a traditional house varies around the world), and still others may reflect popular tastes that change over time.

These rules and techniques represent possible responses to design problems. You can think of them as the toolset that designers bring to the shepherding of chaos towards useful order. If all you have in your toolset is a hammer, all problems look like nails — and you’ll have a hell of a time (and possibly do lots of damage) trying to hammer a screw into place. It behooves you to avail yourself of — and learn to use — a screwdriver. A designer with a wide variety of possible responses will be more effective than one with a smaller set.

In this sense, design is the opposite of ideology. Ideology is an attempt to reduce chaos — to narrow choices — through a predefined, abstract, rigid view of how to best achieve particular outcomes. Design, on the other hand, is about reducing chaos through an emergent, responsive, tangible view of how to achieve particular outcomes; a feedback loop that takes real-world conditions as its baseline. To effectively lead this process, designers are called to be open-minded; to learn from everything and everyone without ideological entanglements; to expand their variety of responses as much as possible.

Three Lessons From the Work of Charles & Ray Eames

Last weekend I had the opportunity to take my kids to see an exhibit of the work of Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum of California. The Eameses are among the most famous designers ever, so little of the work on display was unfamiliar to me. Still, seeing so much of it together in one place was inspiring and enlightening.

The Eameses had a compelling mix of rigor and joie de vivre that has universal appeal. The show captures the playfulness of the resulting work. (My kids were a bit apprehensive about going to see a museum exhibit but got into it once they realized some of the items on display were toys they could play with.)

Three ideas stood out to me in this visit that I thought worth sharing. They apply to design in all domains.

Framing is a creative act

Careful composition and selection — determining what to leave out of a problem domain — opens up new ways of understanding and approaching familiar problems. As Brian Eno has written, “A frame is a way of creating a little world round something… Is there anything in a work that is not frame, actually?”

So much of the Eames’s​’​s work was about creative framing of ordinary things. In their myriad photographs, framing was the central (and literal) creative gesture; Powers of 10 moves the frame up and down levels of granularity to change our understanding of our place in the universe; the Case Study Houses re-frame the materials, construction techniques, and aesthetic of housing.

Accommodate a range of experiences

In the part of the show that presented the Eameses’s Mathematica exhibit, a quote from Charles Eames stood out to me; it reflected their aspirations for the exhibit. He said, “[Mathematica] should be of interest to a bright student and not embarrass the most knowledgeable.”

A physical model of a mobius strip, part of the Eameses's Mathematica exhibit. Image by Ryan Somma CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A physical model of a mobius strip, part of the Eameses’s Mathematica exhibit. Image by Ryan Somma CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of accommodating a range of experiences is very important, and in some cases, challenging. Sometimes we must design for users that have very different perspectives and degrees of experience. This calls for 1) a solid understanding of the problem domain, 2) maintaining a beginners mind, and 3) testing and iterating.

It’s structure all the way down

I’ve always been inspired by the breadth of the Eames Office’s output. They excelled in film, graphic design, industrial design, architecture, exhibit design, and more. Beyond the obvious joy the Eameses got from experimenting with media, materials, techniques, and craft, the unifying conceptual drive behind all of this work was an acknowledgment that it was all underpinned by structure.

Photo by Cliff Hutson on Flickr
Photo by Cliff Hutson on Flickr

A building has structure. House of Cards — a delightful toy that consists of playing cards with carefully placed slits that allow them to be interconnected with each other — has structure. So does a chair, and a film. Even given the wide scope of their work — and the fact that most people saw them as “designers” — Charles Eames saw himself as an architect. “I can’t help but look at the problems around us as problems of structure,” he said, “and structure is architecture.”

The World of Charles and Ray Eames runs in the Oakland Museum of California until February 18, 2019.

Anyone an Information Architect

There’s been much chatter over the past day about Slack’s corporate identity redesign. Among all the commentary and reporting, this post at The Verge stood out for me. There’s two reasons for this. The first is this sentence:

The company is mounting a new marketing campaign describing the app as “where work happens.”

I think I’ve seen Slack market itself as a digital place where work happens before. However, this seems like confirmation that they’re going to push in this direction in a big way. I’m glad, because it acknowledges the fact that Slack is more than a tool, product, or service; it’s an environment. (I see this marketing direction as validation of Living in Information’s thesis.)

The second aspect of the post that stood out for me is this observation by its author, Casey Newton:

I’ve been feeling down on Slack ever since my colleagues at The Verge, which runs on Slack, created a channel called verge-internet for discussing the internet. We already had a channel to discuss tech (verge-tech), and a channel for longer tech discussions (verge-tech-discuss), and a channel for discussing culture (verge-culture). Wasn’t our whole website about the internet? Why did our internet website need an internet discussion forum separate from the many other forums in which we discuss the internet?

Many of us who’ve used a greenfield Slack account to coordinate activities with a group larger than a couple of people have experienced this. The environment’s design makes it easy to spin up new channels. Without an agreed-upon ontology, the result is duplication and confusion. Eventually, someone in the team either self-selects or is assigned the role of Slack channel curator. Not quite a bottom-up structuring of the environment; rather, a bottom-up nomination for the top-down role.

When work — along with other important social interactions — happens in information environments, information architecture stops being the purview of a select few. These days, anyone can be called on to be an information architect.

Slack’s new logo trades a hashtag for a pinwheel

The Role of Structure in Digital Design

Andy Fitzgerald, in A List Apart:

design efforts that focus on creating visually effective pages are no longer sufficient to ensure the integrity or accuracy of content published on the web. Rather, by focusing on providing access to information in a structured, systematic way that is legible to both humans and machines, content publishers can ensure that their content is both accessible and accurate in these new contexts, whether or not they’re producing chatbots or tapping into AI directly.

Digital designers have long considered user interfaces to be the primary artifacts of their work. For many, the structures that inform these interfaces have been relegated to a secondary role — that is, if they’ve been considered at all.

Thanks to the revolution sparked by the iPhone, today we experience information environments through a variety of device form factors. Thus far, these interactions have mostly happened in screen-based devices, but that’s changing too. And to top things off, digital experiences are becoming ever more central to our social fabric.

Designing an information environment in 2019 without considering its underlying structures — and how they evolve — is a form of malpractice.

Conversations with Robots: Voice, Smart Agents & the Case for Structured Content

Making a List

Do you celebrate Christmas? If so, Merry Christmas to you and yours! My family and I celebrate. Like many other people, we open presents on Christmas morning. My kids have just finished opening theirs, and have now moved on to Netflix. So I have a bit of time to reflect.

On my mind this morning? Lists.

Lists are central to the practice of information architecture, and one of the unique aspects of Christmas, as many people celebrate it today, is that it prominently features lists. Several weeks (or in some cases, months) ahead of Christmas Day, children start thinking of gifts they’d like to receive. They make a list. They write it down so they can share it with siblings, friends, parents, etc. and — if the household encourages that sort of thing — with the Fulfiller of Wishes: Santa Claus.

For the child, assembling this list is an exercise in structured fantasizing. “What would I be like if I had this  particular thing in my life? And what about this other thing?” For better or worse, the child starts identifying with the list. Not the things in the list, but the collection itself. One child’s list will be different from another’s; a reflection of their unique personalities through material objects. (I have three kids, and they each make their own lists. When making them, they negotiate to avoid requesting exactly the same things.)

While we are fortunate enough to afford presents, my wife and I don’t like this overly materialistic aspect of the holiday. We do get the children gifts at this time of year (their expectations set by the culture we live in), but we try to keep it simple and minimal. So when our children making their lists, we encourage them to prioritize. “If you had to choose, would you rather have x or y?” The list is a perfect structural construct for this. (Perhaps this is a good way to introduce them to the concept of bubble sorting?)

When Christmas Day comes, the children compare the gifts they’ve received to the lists they made. If there’s too much variance, they may feel slighted — even if the presents they receive are objectively better than the ones they had on the list. The list is a sort of token for their individuality; a structured manifestation of their desires; a reflection of their personality. The child put this highly personal statement into the universe as a concrete artifact that can be verified. Does the universe care? Will it pay heed to who he or she is as a person?

For a child, this list is a big deal.

But that’s not the only prominent Christmas list. There’s another list-maker in this interaction: Santa Claus himself. I’m referring, of course, to the following verse from the classic song Santa Claus is Coming to Town:

He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

Here we have the Fulfiller of Wishes wielding a taxonomy: Serving as both judge and jury, he’ll determine who will benefit from his largesse. The terms aren’t made clear. What exactly constitutes a transgression? What behavior would risk you landing on the dreaded “naughty” category? Beyond indirect references to the state of your consciousness (“He knows if you are sleeping / He knows if you’re awake”), you don’t know. At least you have some comfort in knowing there’s a process for assuring the quality of the data: Santa is checking the list twice.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town was written in the 1930s, when the U.S. was in the grip of the Great Depression. The song featured a few verses that have since been dropped:

The season is near
For happiness time
Gotta bring cheer with every last dime
Santa Claus is coming to town

We’ve gotta dig deep
And cover the list
Gotta see that nobody is missed
Santa Claus is coming to town

Let’s keep the home-fires burning
Let’s give without a pause
Let’s prove to those less fortunate
That there is a Santa Claus

In these verses, the onus of generosity shifts from the Fulfiller of Wishes onto all of us: It is we who must “dig deep” to ensure everybody in the list is taken care of. A beautiful thought — one more fitting with the spirit of the season.

Designing for the Brilliant Cacophony

Mike Monteiro writing for the Adobe Blog:

When I was a little baby designer I was taught that good design meant simplifying. Keep it clean. Keep it simple. Make the system as efficient as possible. As few templates as possible. I’m sure the same goes for setting up style sheets, servers, and all that other shit we do. My city would run more efficiently if we simplified everything.

But I wouldn’t want to live there.

My city is a mess. My country is a mess. The internet is a mess. But in none of those cases is the answer to look for efficiencies, but rather to celebrate the differences. Celebrate the reasons the metro stops aren’t all the same. Celebrate the crooked streets. Celebrate the different voices. Celebrate the different food smells. Understand that other people like things you don’t. And you might like things they don’t. And it’s all cool! That’s what makes this city, and all cities, a blast. And when all these amazing people, some of them who we don’t understand at all, go online they are going to behave as inefficiently in there as they do out there. And that is awesome.

And your job, the glorious job you signed up for when you said you wanted to be a designer, is to support all of these people. Make sure none of these incredible voices get lost. And to fight against those who see that brilliant cacophony as a bug and not the greatest feature of all time.

You are our protection against monsters.

The call for diversity resonates with me. (It’s the subject of the keynote I’ll be delivering at World IA Day 2019.) Being aware of the distinctions we are creating (or perpetuating) is particularly important for designers who are working on the information architecture of these systems, since the structures we create tend to be longer-lived than other parts of the information environment.

That said, it’s impossible for the systems we create—and the structures that underlie them—to represent every point of view. Designers must make choices; we must take positions. How do we determine what voices to heed among the cacophony? In order to know, we must ask another set of questions: what is this information environment ultimately in service to? What am I in service to? Are the two aligned?

Who Do Designers Really Work For

Folder-centric to App-centric Workflows

Yesterday I had a busy day, that had me shuttling between Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. In days like these, I prefer to work from my iPad (as opposed to a traditional laptop computer.) The iPad takes up less space, which makes it easier to use in cramped public transport. It also has an LTE modem, so I can remain connected to the internet when I’m out and about. Its smaller screen also encourages focus, which helps in distracting environments. I love it, and on days like these, I wonder when the day will come when I can do most of my work from an iPad.

That said, working from the iPad requires that I shift how I think about the structure of my work. I’ve written before about how I keep all my project materials organized using folders in the file system of my Mac. While iOS includes a Files app that allows interacting with such file structures, the system encourages app-centric (rather than project-centric) way of working. Rather than thinking “I’m now working on project x, and all the stuff for project x is in this folder,” context switching calls for remembering what app I was working in: “I was editing the document for project x in Google Docs; hence I must open Google Docs.”

Many of the productivity apps in iOS allow for arbitrary document groupings. Hence, I find myself replicating my file structure in the various apps. I end up with a project x folder in Google Drive, another in Pages, another in Keynotes, another in OneNote, etc. This adds to my workload and requires that I keep track of which app I used for what. I find it a less natural way of working than keeping everything grouped in a single folder. It’s one of the challenges of working in iOS that I’m continually looking to overcome.

Wikipedia as Information Infrastructure

Wikipedia is more than a publication. As I point out in Living in Information, Wikipedia is also the place where this publication is created. At its scale, it couldn’t happen otherwise. But Wikipedia is more than that: increasingly, it’s also a key part of our society’s information infrastructure. Other systems increasingly rely on it for the “authoritative” versions of particular concepts.

This works well most of the time. But it’s not perfect, and can lead to weird, unexpected consequences. For example, a Wikipedia entry is part of the reason why Google says I’m dead. More recently, a Wikipedia hack led to Siri showing a photo of a penis whenever a user asked about Donald Trump. While the former example is probably due to bad algorithms on Google’s part, the latter seems to be a fault with Wikipedia’s security mechanisms.

The people who manage Wikipedia are in an interesting situation. Over time they’ve created a fantastic system that allows for the efficient creation of organized content from the bottom-up at tremendous scale. They’ve been incredibly successful. Alas, with success comes visibility and influence. The more systems there are that depend on Wikipedia content, the more of a target it becomes for malicious actors.

This will require that the team re-think some of the openness and flexibility of the system in favor of more top-down control. How will this scale? Who will have a say on content decisions? How will Wikipedia’s governance structures evolve? These discussions are playing out right now. Wikipedia is a harbinger of future large-scale generative information environments, so it behooves us all to follow along.