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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Come Together (in Information Environments)

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

This post beautifully articulates a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

That said, I expect a reaction when this is over; a resurgence of big festivals, fairs, concerts, etc. I sense that after weeks (and hopefully it’s only weeks) of meeting people exclusively through video chats, we’ll be longing to be in the physical presence of others. Digital is too narrow a medium to convey the richness of full interpersonal interaction. For now, we are truly living significant parts of our lives in information environments — not by choice.

(I found out about this op ed through my publisher’s newsletter; you should subscribe.)

How to Be Together Apart In the Time of Coronavirus

Label-less Buttons

From a report on The Verge:

Starting [February 27], Spotify is rolling out a new look to its iPhone app. The changes prioritize universal icons and visual indicators over written words, which Spotify says makes the app a more accessible experience for users all over the world.

In other words, the app is ditching labels in buttons, and going only with icons.

As noted above, the objective is to make the experience more accessible globally. I’m taking this to mean that interfaces with few or no words on them are easier to translate into different languages than those that include words. But that’s a gain for designers and developers, not necessarily for users.

This label-less approach to buttons works best when working in a domain that already has rich iconography. Spotify operates in such a domain — i.e., music players. If you had to design an interface with buttons to play, pause, go backwards or forwards, you’d have a clear starting point; we’ve had devices with buttons that accommodate these behaviors for a long time. My preferred music player (Apple Music) also has label-less buttons for those actions:

Apple Music

Modern music-playing apps must also accommodate other actions that may not have well-known icons. For example, the video above highlights the user downloading a track to their phone. In the new Spotify UI, the button for this action shows a downward-pointing arrow inside a circle. Downloading tracks from the internet to local devices hasn’t been around as long as play/pause/rewind has. I’d bet more folks would get tripped up by such a button in the absence of labels.

Note in the video that some buttons in the new Spotify interface don’t have icons at all; they consist solely of labels. For example, the “Follow” button simply consists of the word “Follow.” When pressed, the label changes to “Following” to indicate the object’s changed state. This is a rich interaction that would be difficult to communicate clearly using only icons.

Spotify is rolling out a new look for iOS that ditches word-based buttons

Elemental, Or How Information Architecture Makes Us Smarter

A keynote presentation I delivered at World IA Day San Francisco 2020.

Slides:

Description:

Information architecture isn’t about nav bars and search engines and site maps; it’s about order in service to understanding. To effectively design order, we must look beneath the surface, to the elements that make IA distinct from other disciplines. These elements are language, distinctions, relationships, and rules. Information architects use them to create structures that help others understand.

In a world that is increasingly mediated through environments made of language, it’s essential that designers master these elements. This presentation illustrates how they work by examining a masterwork of information architecture, Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements.

Don’t Make Me Think, Harley Quinn Edition

The Verge reports on the disappointing market performance of a recent Warner Bros. movie:

Birds of Prey’s opening weekend wasn’t the success that Warner Bros. had planned for a movie about a popular DC character being portrayed by Margot Robbie. The film only generated $33 million domestically, coming up short against investors’ $50 to $55 million projection. The low box office return came as a surprise to industry insiders who noted that Birds of Prey was one of the best-reviewed DC movies in recent years, earning high scores on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what went wrong? One industry executive with knowledge of the matter referred to the rollout as a disaster. Like a domino effect, a few things went wrong at once: bad marketing, bad trailers, and bad title decisions.

Among the latter, the article notes the film’s title, BIRDS OF PREY. The problem? It doesn’t mention the movie’s popular central character. Warner Bros. has now changed the film’s name to HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY.

Steve Krug’s 2000 book Don’t Make Me Think argued that websites shouldn’t make users stop and think about what to do next. Interacting in these environments should feel natural and effortless. Clear, obvious labels play a big part in making these places more understandable.

Obvious labeling is essential in other domains as well. With so many sources of information competing for people’s attention, you want your message to get through. While you could argue that BIRDS OF PREY is a more interesting and perhaps artistically sound choice (disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie), it’s undeniably more obscure.

When seeing the movie’s name among several other choices on a box office marquee, the theater-goer shouldn’t have to think about his or her decision too much. For new intellectual properties, this requires investing in marketing to build name recognition. But when a property already has name recognition, it makes sense to use that name in the labeling. Don’t make me think.

Harly Quinn has better SEO, so Birds of Prey is getting a new name

Please Support World IA Day

Eight years ago, a group of committed folks — led by Abby Covert — addressed a need in the world. The discipline of information architecture had an annual conference — The IA Summit (now renamed IA Conference) — that served as a “gathering of the tribe.” Those of us committed to the discipline (and the tribe) made the yearly pilgrimage to the Summit. Doing so invariably has required traveling to somewhere in the U.S. or Canada. But what about the rest of the world? How might IA communities grow everywhere in a more distributed, bottom-up way?

The response to this need was World IA Day, an annual celebration that happens on the same(ish) day in dozens of cities around the world. The first WIAD, held in 2012, featured events in 14 cities across the globe. This year’s edition — which will take place on February 22 — will feature around 60. (The call for locations is still open.) Which is to say, the event has grown over the past years.

I served as global Thematic Chair of that first WIAD and organized the local event in Panama City, Panama, where I was living at the time. I also produced one of three video keynotes to be shown in local events around the world. Since then, I’ve also delivered keynotes, presentations, and workshops at events in San Francisco, Tampa, and Zurich, and attended several others. I’ve found WIAD events to be enriching and insightful. They’re a fantastic way to meet like-minded colleagues and to help grow your local community of practice.

Organizing and executing such a wide-ranging initiative takes time and resources. Volunteers do most of the work, but there are still bills to pay. Financing for previous WIADs came from the IA Institute. Alas, that organization dissolved last year. A new 501(c)(3) public charity, World IA Day, Inc., has been formed to carry WIAD’s mission forward. (More on this from Peter Morville.) This organization needs funds to achieve stability. If you’ve enjoyed WIAD, or are considering doing so, please join me in donating to World IA Day, Inc. today. Thanks!