For many people today, most work happens in information environments. Much of it consists of collaborating on and coordinating activities. In other words, it requires communicating with other people. There are various ways for people to communicate in information environments. Email is one of the oldest. It’s also one of the best.
You can set communications channels on a continuum based on latency. On one end of this continuum, you have face-to-face communication, which is very low-latency. When somebody says something to you in your presence, you get what they’re saying almost as soon as the words leave their mouth. In many cases, there’s also a social expectation that you will reply right then and there. Long pauses can be awkward; you must respond even if it is to say, “I need a minute.” Face-to-face oral communication is what we call a synchronous channel — the back-and-forth between participants happens in “real time.”
On the other end of the continuum are communications channels that don’t carry such expectations, mostly for technical reasons. For example, if you send a question on a (physical) postcard to your friend halfway around the world, you know that the piece of cardboard that conveys your question will take some time to get to where your friend is. Your friend might read your message a few days from now. If she chooses to respond with a postcard of her own, it too will take several days to reach you. Considerable time will elapse between the time when you issued your question and when you got a reply. Thus, postal mail is what we call an asynchronous communication channel.
When he introduced the iPhone 7 in 2016, Apple executive Phil Schiller described the company’s decision to remove the phone’s headphone jack as “courageous.” While some people mocked this assertion, Schiller’s point is valid: Apple often makes bold decisions and sticks by them even when they may be unpopular (as with the headphone jack.)
This courage doesn’t just come across in the design of Apple’s products and their features; it’s also sometimes evident in the language the company uses to describe them. Remember when the iPad was first announced? This was a time when Apple still had a product in their lineup called iPod; the name iPad lent itself to confusion. I remember stumbling at first when trying to talk about the device. Now the name iPad feels natural. Some people call all tablets iPads, even the ones produced by other manufacturers. It’s become the name of the form factor itself, not just the product. Apple pulled off a coup with that label, a testament to the power of their marketing.
More recently, the company has made another bold naming choice. I’m talking about the word they’ve chosen to describe how users add functionality to watch faces in the Apple Watch. You can’t just say “the space in the watch face where you can see the temperature.” Too clunky. At some point, a team at Apple had to discuss giving these things a name. The word they chose? Complications.
Consider this sequence of numbers: 7, 24, 153.6, 7, 25, 153, 7, 26, 154.2, 7, 28, 154.4, 7, 29, 155.6, 7, 31, 154.6, 8, 1, 154.6. What do these numbers mean to you? Seems there’s a pattern there, but perhaps their meaning isn’t clear.
What if I show them to you like this?:
I’m willing to bet this layout changes everything. When seeing the numbers in a two-dimensional matrix, your brain starts making distinctions. There are three columns of numbers, which are related somehow: the numbers in column one are of a type, and so are the numbers in columns two and three. The fact that some of the numbers in column three have decimal values also hints at their belonging to a family, but you could’ve gotten that from the original list. Still, the 2-D matrix layout does much to help you make sense of the distinctions between the numbers.
So a layout change has helped you know there are three types of numbers here. But what are they? There’s no header row with labels, after all. Well, you can make educated guesses from looking at the range of numbers. Let’s take the first column. There are six 7s, followed by an 8. Apparently, this isn’t a random list; there is some relationship between these numbers.
Most spaces serve as shelter; they keep us safe, warm, and dry. That’s the baseline. But some spaces go beyond that: They also help us think better. One such space is the war room.
A war room is a space that allows the team to focus on a project or initiative. It allows team members to see the latest developments in the project, but also trace its history; to see where critical decisions were made (and why.) The war room extends the cognitive abilities of its inhabitants. It creates a shared context that allows them to have intelligent discussions about the project.
Walking into such a room focuses your mind on that project. You and your teammates are (literally) surrounded by the information you need to make decisions about the direction of the project. The room functions as a substrate for working towards a shared goal. It’s an inhabitable shared notebook that allows for real-time collaboration.
I’m sometimes faced with an awkward situation. Picture this: I’m sitting in a conference room table across from a client, and somebody will say something along the lines of “send us the IA.” That’s expectable: As an information architecture “expert,” customers reckon I will produce an IA for them. Often, that’s what they’re paying me for. Alas, IA means different things to different people. Some expect an artifact that looks like a sitemap. Others are thinking of something more abstract, like a conceptual model. Others expect something more concrete; a spreadsheet representing a taxonomy, navigation system comps, wireframes, etc.
Whatever the case, the awkwardness comes when I reply with a question along the lines of, “What do you mean by ‘IA’”? This often elicits a look of surprise. “You’re the expert!” the person’s probably thinking. “Why don’t you tell us what we need?” Indeed, this is often what I must do — figure out what the project needs, and then work to provide that as thoroughly as possible within the project’s constraints. However, there are always expectations that must be met. Knowing what those are upfront helps.
Think about the place where you live. Is it a house? An apartment? A room in a dormitory? Wherever it is, the odds are high that you live inside a structure designed by someone for that purpose. By “that purpose,” I mean being inhabited by people — generic people, not just you as an individual. (While some individuals can afford to have their living places designed just for them, from the ground up, this is not the norm. Most of us live in buildings that were designed for somebody else or nobody at all; for “people,” in general.)
These structures include distinct spaces. Some, like the toilets and kitchen, are prescriptive: they’re designed to accommodate specific uses. We may do other things in these spaces, but they were designed with a primary use in mind; they satisfy broad needs you shared with other people in your culture. Other spaces in the house are more generic. For example, a garage can serve as storage for a car, a space for writing, or the birthplace of the world’s most valuable company.
When you move into a house or apartment, you begin a gradual process of making this generic environment your own. At first, the place is still unfamiliar. You may wonder, “Where was it that I put the cutlery?” You open several drawers… “Ah yes, there it is!” Little by little, you find places to store your stuff, bring in furniture and arrange it in ways that suit you, hang art on the walls, etc. You customize the environment, adapting its structures to your needs. Eventually, you don’t need to look for the cutlery — you just know where it is. The place becomes familiar, expectable, usable, perhaps even a little boring.
A friend of mine recently left Facebook and Twitter. He’s not alone: I’ve seen a smattering of “farewell” posts in both social networks over the past few weeks. It’s part of an emerging trend: busy professionals start to question the usefulness of spending time in social networks, eventually opting to quit altogether. Blogging pioneer Derek Powazek recently published a post titled Why I Quit Twitter, a List. (The first — and last — items on his list? “It made me unhappy.”) And books like Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and Cal Newport’s Deep Work argue that you must quit social networks altogether if you’re to reclaim your ability to focus.
I can relate. I, too, have gotten caught up in the typical social media-instigated behaviors that cause unhappiness: arguing about trivial stuff with strangers, oversharing, compulsively checking whether someone has “liked” my latest post, lingering way too long over some clever retort, etc. I’m also vexed by the perverse incentives that result when networks base their business models on behavior modification. (I even wrote a book about it.)
A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of sharing the stage at UX Week, the premier UX conference in the world. I spoke about the subject of my book, Living in Information. You can see the full presentation here:
Consider a beautiful website. It’s got it all: deep (yet accessible) content, well-structured navigation systems, clear visual hierarchies, timeless typography, balanced page layouts, practical (yet engaging) visuals, and more. Your first impression is of professionalism: much thought and energy went into creating it. It’s gorgeous.
And yet, something’s missing. People. Where are they? Perhaps there’s a byline here and there, but there’s no space for me or you or anybody else. How do you make the place better? How do you reach out to potential collaborators around this information? You can’t. Can’t comment, rate, suggest, ask… So the place feels empty. Beautiful and empty.
There are probably other people here with you, but you wouldn’t know it. Each of you is experiencing the place on your own. It’s only you and the content. Same as it ever was — at least since people started writing things down. Even though it’s an interactive experience, this website is no more alive than a mail order catalog. It could be so much more! Rather than a mere publication, it could be a place that engages people to help it grow and evolve and become better and more useful over time.
It’s become fashionable to criticize social media — justifiably so. Social media have had a pernicious effect on our politics, our ability to focus, our demeanor. So a backlash is building. But social media don’t feel empty in the same way your beautiful website does. There are people in social media! You can see them, interact with them. They share their humanity — at least those parts they deem fit for sharing. As a result, social media feel alive in a way that other information environments don’t.
As we move to use social media more responsibly, what can we learn from them to make other digital interactions more human? What lessons do they offer to help us center our information environments on people, unshackled from business models that monetize their attention?