Flexibility vs. Ease-of-use

Chris Welch, reporting in The Verge about a new Android tablet feature:

The simply named “Entertainment Space” will be a new section to the left of the home screen on tablets… It’s an all-encompassing hub that brings together video (TV shows, movies, and YouTube), games, and books.

In other words, the feature aggregates the user’s media, making it easier to access. Instead of having to open individual apps to find movies, TV shows, YouTube clips, etc., users can now access a single screen that puts content upfront.

Computers are universal devices — tools for making tools. Depending on what app you’re using, your computer can be a spreadsheet, a music player, a book, a video editor, etc. This flexibility is a big part of what makes computers powerful.

The tradeoff is complexity. Learning to use a single-purpose tool entails forming an accurate mental model of how it works. This can be hard enough. (I’ve been using Excel for decades and still learning new things it can do.)

But when you’re using a platform, you must not only form a model of each tool but also of the means through which you manage tools — where to find them, how to install, launch, and configure them, where to save work-in-progress, etc.

There’s an inherent tension between flexibility and ease of use. System designers oscillate between both extremes. A new device may launch as a single-purpose appliance and evolve towards platformhood.

An example of this is Apple TV. Originally designed as a simple living room media player, today’s models offer a broad range of functions, including the ability to install apps like games and third-party media “stores.”

This flexibility makes the system more powerful but also more complex. In the earlier, simpler version, users could easily choose what content to experience. Now, they must keep track not just of what to experience, but where to do it.

Users of a single-purpose system must only understand a small set of taxonomies. For example, if they’re going to watch movies, they’ll expect to deal with genres, movie studios, directors, etc.

In contrast, a more complex system asks that users understand taxonomies of taxonomies: “this is the type of app where I can expect to see movie genres, whereas this other app over here has levels and health points.”

Features like Entertainment Space aim to square this circle by layering a simplified, content-first experience atop the platform. I expect their effectiveness depends on their discovery algorithms. It’s a tricky design challenge.

Google’s Entertainment Space makes Android tablets look like Google TV – The Verge

Building Bridges to Understanding

Some tasks are easy, like choosing a flavor of ice cream; other tasks are hard, like choosing a medical treatment. Consider, for example, an ice cream shop where the varieties differ only in flavor, not calories or other nutritional content. Selecting which ice cream to eat is merely a matter of choosing the one that tastes best. If the flavors are all familiar, such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, most people will be able to predict with considerable accuracy the relation between their choice and their ultimate consumption experience. Call this relation between choice and welfare a mapping. Even if there are some exotic flavors, the ice cream store can solve the mapping problem by offering a free taste.

Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge

Thaler and Sunstein are describing part of what I understand as a mental model. New users aren’t blank slates. They approach interactions with a system using preconceptions shaped by prior experiences with analogous systems.

For example, imagine you encounter chocolate as a possible ice cream choice for the first time. (I know, it’s inconceivable. Everyone loves chocolate ice cream. Right? I know I do. Please bear with me.) If you’ve had chocolate candy and any other kind of ice cream before, you may have a rough idea of what to expect. Chocolate has a particular flavor, and ice cream is sweet, cold, and creamy.

Now consider an exotic ice cream flavor such as green tea. You may have had ice cream and green tea before, so you have reference points for both. However, your prior experiences confound your expectations of how green tea ice cream will taste and feel. Ice cream is sweet and cold; green tea is bitter and hot.

So, when choosing between chocolate or green tea ice cream, you’ll have a better model of the former. That is, your expectations of the taste of chocolate ice cream map more closely to your experience of eating it. If you’re feeling adventurous, you may pick green tea anyway. But it’s a gamble. Hence, those (obnoxiously small) free sample spoons in ice cream shops.

The primary function of information architecture is establishing meaningful distinctions. These distinctions appear as choices to users. Users understand those choices in relation to other choices (i.e., as sets of concepts) and in relation to prior interactions with similar choices (i.e., as individual concepts.)

Some of these concepts will be more obvious than others, much like chocolate is a more obvious choice of ice cream flavor than green tea. Users need help when choosing between unfamiliar or ambiguous concepts.

In other words, users need semantic analogs to those free ice cream samples. For example, each choice could include a clear label, plus an icon or a short phrase that clarifies its meaning in this particular context. Ideally, such aids give users a high-level preview of what they can expect to find when they choose that option. (I.e., they “give them a taste of what’s to come.”)

Much of the craft of IA consists of orchestrating the expectations of users as they’re inducted into new systems. This requires building nuanced bridges between users’ (imperfect) mental models and systems’ (complex, unfamiliar) conceptual models. When done successfully, a user‘s confidence in making choices will increase as he or she interacts with the system.

Cover photo: Ruth Hartnupt (CC BY 2.0)

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Architectural Skeuomorphism

Sarah Barrett, writing in Medium:

While there is a lot that IA can learn from actual architecture or city planning, websites aren’t buildings or cities, and they don’t have to work like them. Instead, they should be designed according to the same principles that people’s brains expect from physical experiences.

We have innate skills that allow us to navigate and understand the ‘real’ world. Like physical places, information environments (i.e., websites and apps) are contexts where we can do and learn things.

As a result, it’s natural to want to layer real-world affordances onto digital places. But it’s a naive mistake. Digital can do things physical can’t and vice-versa. Thoughtlessly mimicking real-world affordances in information environments can lead to what Sarah calls “architectural skeuomorphism” — a plague of early web and app UIs.

Conversely, digital’s flexibility makes it easy to inadvertently confound our expectations of things when we experience them in more than one ‘place.’ Sarah offers a great example: a Google Doc document object offers different capabilities depending on where you’re interacting with it within Google’s app ecosystem.

To design more usable systems, we must understand how humans make sense of being in and operating within environments. Sarah offers four specific areas for exploration, and promises a longer-form treatment of each. If you’ve read Living in Information, you’ll know why I’m so excited to see where she’s taking this.

Websites are not living rooms and other lessons for information architecture

On the IA-Chess Analogy

Jessi Shakarian, writing in Medium:

When I picked up Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, the so-called “polar bear” book, I didn’t expect to find a passion around chess. However, chess has become my lens of looking at information architecture in the real world.

In the book, the authors use chess is an analogy for information architecture — it’s a system of rules that doesn’t change based on where you play (on a wooden board in your living room, online against a friend across the country, or on an app on your phone).

The chess analogy is one of my favorite ways of explaining information architecture. As Jessi points out, the game has been around for a long time. Many people know about chess and — more importantly — are aware that it and its physical instantiation aren’t the same thing. As Jessi explains,

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Don’t Subscribe; Follow

Per a report in Podnews (via The Loop), starting with iOS 14.5, Apple will remove the word ‘subscribe’ from its market-leading Podcasts app. In its stead, users will be invited to ‘follow’ podcasts. With this change, Apple joins Spotify, Audible, Stitcher, and Amazon Music, which already give users the option to ‘follow’.

Why the change? A researcher claims 47% of people who don’t listen to podcasts think ‘subscribing’ will cost money.

This is a great example of the sort of counter-intuitive insights one can glean from research. I’ve never been confused by the word ‘subscribe’ in this context. Given the choice between ‘subscribe’ and ‘follow’, I’d argue that ‘subscribe’ is a clearer description of what is happening.

But I understand how podcasts work. Many people don’t, and I can see how they’d understand subscriptions — an action they likely associate with newspapers and magazines — as something they must pay for. While less precise, ‘follow’ is a familiar enough term (especially online), and one that may be less intimidating.

‘Follow our podcast’: Apple Podcasts to stop using ‘subscribe’

Profiles in Curiosity

Today is World IA Day, the annual global celebration of all things information architecture. This year’s theme is ‘designing curiosity,’ and as part of the celebrations, Cassini Nazir asked me to share my thoughts for a series called profiles in curiosity.

Curiosity is one of those curious words we use in everyday speech without minding their precise meaning. Cassini’s invitation was an opportunity to reflect on what curiosity means to me and where and how I experience it.

So what do I mean by curiosity?

Curiosity is a playful, open-ended mode of inquiry. Something sparks an awareness of your ignorance, and it entices rather than shames you.

See more in my profile in curiosity and check out the whole series.


My friends Jesse James Garrett and Peter Merholz recently wrapped up the first season (my phrase) of their podcast Finding Our Way. The show is about “navigating the opportunities and challenges of design leadership,” and it takes form as an ongoing conversation between the co-hosts. (And occasional guests, including yours truly.)

Peter and Jesse are rendering a tremendous service to the design community by having these conversations in public. They’re experienced practitioners reflecting on what they’ve learned both in their own journeys to design leadership and through advising other design leaders. If you haven’t heard Finding Our Way, I encourage you to listen.

Episode 25 (“The Reckoning”) is especially worth your attention. In it, Peter and Jesse reflect on emerging themes in their conversation. An exchange early in that episode resonated strongly with me. Peter observed that “the crafts of (design) leadership are communication and information architecture.” He elaborated:

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Expanding Our Practice

People in some parts of Latin America are prone to an unusual illness called susto. It’s triggered by a traumatic incident, such as a fall or a big scare. Victims believe that the experience causes their souls to detach from their bodies, resulting in physical and psychological distress. Those afflicted become listless, have trouble sleeping and eating, develop fevers and diarrhea, etc. In extreme cases, they may even die. The condition is serious enough to merit inclusion in the DSM.

Susto is an example of a culture-bound syndrome. Even though we all share the same biology, most of us can’t get it; it only afflicts people from particular cultures. There seems to be something about these people’s understanding of themselves and their relationship to the universe that leads them to react to trauma in a particular way. This understanding is what we call a mental model. The model of people prone to susto includes the body-soul dichotomy, for example. This dichotomy seems central to the condition.

You and I also have models of how reality works. For example, we believe the earth orbits the sun. We think of politics as ranging from left to right. We distinguish people by various characteristics, such as race, age, gender, education, cultural background, religious affiliation, nationality, etc. We exchange resources and services by using currency, which is increasingly intangible. We take all of this stuff for granted.

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Work on the Structure

Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1656)
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1656)

Sometime during my school years, I learned how to write an outline. We’d been tasked with writing an essay. Our teacher showed us that we could either write from start to finish or think about what we wanted to write first. By considering the main points first, and what sequence they should be in, our essays would be more coherent and compelling.

It was hard. Putting words down as they came to us seemed easier; this outline business slowed us down. I resisted at first. With time, as we were assigned longer writing projects, the benefits of outlining became clearer. Writing an outline allowed us to see we were missing important points or had them in the wrong sequence. Outlining also helped us face the fact there were things about our subjects we didn’t yet understand; we had to do more research.

I re-learned the lesson of outlining during my final year of university when I took an elective oil painting studio course. I’d dabbled with different painting media throughout my life, and had always thought of oils as “grown-up” paints. I was excited to learn how to do it.

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