The Causes of Inconsistent Navigation Structures in Product Families

Yesterday I published a new post on The Architecture of Information. It’s about the importance of maintaining structural consistency across a family of products.

Specifically, I wanted to put in writing an example I’ve used when talking about this stuff: the location of the “Sync to Furthest Page Read” button/link in the Kindle user interface. Bottom line: this is an important feature if you use Kindle in several devices concurrently. However, the way you access it depends on what platform you’re using. That can be frustrating. If you haven’t done so already, please read that post.

What I didn’t cover there is why this sort of inconsistency creeps into product families. (I’m focusing The Architecture of Information on examples, and not on speculating about how they’ve come about.) That said, writing yesterday’s post made me revisit my interview with Christian Crumlish. In that conversation, I asked Christian about the sources for this type of inconsistency, and even brought up the same Kindle example. This was part of his reply:

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The Architecture of Information

Yesterday I launched a new website, The Architecture of Information. I describe it as a collection of “intriguing information structures from the web and beyond.” In other words, the site showcases examples of information architectures spotted in the wild.

While the site is new, much of its content isn’t. I’ve posted examples of good/bad/intriguing information architecture on my personal blog over the past three years, using the tag TAOI (the architecture of information.) I’ve copied those posts to the new website, where they can have a life of their own.

Why am I doing this? There are lots of sites that feature examples of user interface design, but few (none?) that focus on information architecture. People are drawn to snazzy screenshots and clever animations. Good navigation systems and clear conceptual models aren’t as obvious or immediately appealing.

Yet good IA is essential. As I’ve said so many times before, the structural layer of websites/apps/digital things changes more slowly than look-and-feel. Information structures have a critical influence on the effectiveness of digital products over time. So, we need to pay more heed to what’s happening beneath the surface of these things.

I hope The Architecture of Information helps shed some light. If you have ideas for interesting information structures you’d like me to feature, please get in touch. And also check out the new site — I’d love your feedback.

The Bad IA of Streaming Services

Alan Sepinwall writing in Rolling Stone:

The part of the streaming shell game that I’ve never been able to fully understand — and that has somehow gotten worse with each passing year and each new service debut — is just how bad the user experience is on all of them.

The article lists several aspects of today’s streaming services that offer a subpar experience to viewers. Among them, it includes bad information architecture:

With the exception of Disney+, which has several clearly delineated brands and genres that are easy to explore(*), the streamers seem to go out of their way to encourage endless browsing, as if time spent on the service is valuable to them even if you never get around to actually watching anything. Browsing is difficult, direct searching is somehow worse, and the whole thing seems to have been made by one of those men Alfred tried to warn Bruce Wayne about, who just want to watch the world burn.

(*) And even they’re not perfect — all the Marvel movies are arrayed pretty randomly, which makes it more difficult to attempt to, say, rewatch the MCU in order.

I’m a customer of several of these services, and have experienced all of the issues listed in the article. I get the impression these systems have been designed “screen-first”: lots of investment on the front end and little on the underlying UX architecture.

Problems such as searching and browsing large catalogs have been solved in other domains. Why are streaming services so hard to use in 2020? I suspect the answer is a mix of business models that aren’t aligned with customer needs/wants and a lack of awareness of IA best practices. The latter is relatively easy to fix.

As a way of experiencing video content, streaming is better than the old broadcast model. But all of these services could be so much better with some mindful IA and conceptual modeling. Do you know someone who works in one of these companies, or work there yourself? If so, I’d love to talk — please get in touch.

Who Loses Big in the Great Streaming Wars? The User

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
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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.

The Blind Spot in Digital Initiatives

A few weeks ago, I saw a meme that resonated with me. It had the format of a survey question, and it went something like this:

Who initiated your company’s digital transformation?

A) CIO
B) CTO
C) COVID-19

Cue nervous laughter: all-too-real. Our response to the pandemic has wrought major changes. For one thing, everyone who can do so is now working from home. Businesses are scrambling to figure out how to best serve their customers in this new reality. There’s also a palpable sense that many of these changes will persist after the immediate crisis passes. As a result, many companies are looking for new ways to provide value over digital channels.

Most recognize that there are two aspects to digital initiatives. On the one hand, there are technical considerations: selecting and configuring infrastructure, developing applications on that infrastructure, and so on. We can think of these as the “how” of the initiative: How will we serve these customers? Should we host systems on our premises, in the cloud, or some kind of hybrid solution? Should we develop solutions internally, or should we buy an off-the-shelf product? Etc. These types of questions have traditionally been the domain of IT teams.

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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)

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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Slack’s Information Architecture Redesign

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely. The crisis has made digital collaboration environments more critical than they’ve been before. Many of us are spending significant portions of our days conversing with colleagues in places like Slack and Microsoft Teams. The latter’s usage has more than doubled during the crisis. And in a Twitter thread, Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, noted a surge in demand due to the pandemic:

When you have that many people working in an information environment, the structure of the place matters. Clunky navigation systems can lead to confusion, wasted time, misunderstandings, increased need for support, and more. The pain is especially acute for new users, who may be unfamiliar with how to find their way around such environments.

Last week, Slack announced a redesign that aims to clarify the environment’s navigation systems:

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