Rediscovering Information Architecture

UX Collective’s Fabricio Teixeira and Caio Braga writing in their fifth annual State of UX report:

While last year we the design community reflected on how the experiences we create can impact the world (from enabling tech addiction to influencing democratic elections), this year’s report carries a more positive outlook: 2020 is the year of pragmatic optimism. It is the year for designers to conscientiously improve not only the digital products people use every day, but also our companies and our industry.

The report highlights several possible futures for an improved UX design field. Among them: the rediscovery of information architecture. This section cites the central role of information environments in today’s societies and notes that designing effectively for such environments calls for thinking beneath the surface to the structures that underlie them.

This subject is dear to me, so I was grateful when Caio and Fabricio asked me to contribute some thoughts for the report. I’ll highlight this one since I think it nicely articulates the broad implications of the subject:

As we enter the year 2020, things start to change as information environments become the core of all digital institutions surrounding our lives. “Organizations are stewards of information environments, and information structures are a key strategic concern. Companies, governments, and non-profits must aim for these structures to be useful, usable, and coherent — not just for themselves and their stakeholders, but for society as a whole,” explains Arango. “These factors increase the strategic importance of design in general and information architecture in particular. IA is long overdue for rediscovery and resurgence.”

The whole thing is worth your attention — especially if you’re responsible for the design of digital products or services.

The State of UX in 2020

TAOI: Searching for iTunes in macOS Catalina

The architecture of information:

Starting with macOS Catalina, Apple deprecated its long-standing iTunes media management app. In its stead, we got three new applications: Music.app, Podcasts.app, and TV.app.

I just upgraded my laptop to Catalina. After cleaning up some random post-upgrade changes, I set out to do some work. Before starting, I thought I’d get some music going in the background. So I did what I always do to play music on the computer: I typed CMD-space to open the system Spotlight search field and then itun-RETURN. This sequence of keystrokes usually launches the iTunes application. I’ve done it so many times I now do it reflexively, without even looking at what the system is doing.

Which is why I was confused when I saw an unfamiliar app welcome dialog pop up. I knew iTunes had changed in this release, but the dialog wasn’t what I expected: I was onboarding onto the Podcasts app. My first thought was that perhaps the Music app opened with a description of the new apps that replaced previous iTunes functionality so that I wouldn’t be lost entirely. But the welcome dialog said nothing about Music or TV — it was all about Podcasts. When I closed it, I realized I had actually opened the Podcasts app. I was baffled.

So I typed CMD-space again and then the word itunes:

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The Perfect Framing for an Information Architecture Challenge

Back in August, I highlighted an upcoming Twitter feature that allows users to follow topics in their timeline, much like they follow accounts today. The release of the feature is imminent, and Casey Newton has posted an update in The Verge. It opens with this scenario:

Recently, a friend told me he wanted to spend more time using Twitter, but he didn’t quite know how. His primary interest is comedy, he told me, and he hoped to find a way to see comedians’ best jokes on Twitter as they were posted. But when he followed comedians, he mostly saw a lot of self-promotion — tour dates, late-night appearances, and that sort of thing. No matter your personal interests, there are countless good and relevant tweets on Twitter. But where are they?

A person realizes they have an information need. The system he or she is using isn’t meeting that need. What to do?

It’s the perfect framing for an information architecture challenge.

Twitter Topics: follow subjects automatically in the timeline

TAOI: Incompatible Apps in the Microsoft Store

The architecture of information:

A month ago, Microsoft introduced several new computers to its Surface line. While some of the new devices were incremental advances, one of them — the Surface Pro X — is a modern reinterpretation of the product line. It’s physically sleeker than previous Surface tablets. It features a new stylus that can be stored in the tablet’s keyboard. And, most importantly, it uses a new ARM processor architecture, like the one used by smartphones.

This last point is worth noting. One of the advantages of using Windows tablets over iPads is that the latter lack the breadth of software available for Windows. But in many cases, software “for Windows” really means “for Windows on traditional Intel processors.” Some of the apps that run “on Windows” are incompatible with the new ARM processors in the Surface Pro X tablets, even though they, too, run Windows. In other words, it’s complicated.

In his review of the device for The Verge, Dieter Bohn calls out app compatibility issues as one of the downsides of the new device. The review is worth reading for details into the complexities of this processor transition. The challenges are nuanced: some apps will run slowly, others won’t run at all. One issue stood out to me:
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Changes to iOS 13’s Mail Toolbar

A perennial tweet by Jared Spool:

The default Mail application in iOS — perhaps one of the most popular apps in the world — is an unfortunate recent example. With the latest release of the app (in iOS 13,) Apple’s designers changed the options in the toolbar so that the Trash button is located where the Reply button has been in previous releases. Even though these buttons are different, app users have developed muscle memory over time; they’re used to tapping on that screen location to initiate a reply action without thinking about it. Only that now, instead of opening a draft reply, the message they’re working on disappears. The result? Frustrated users. John Gruber has a good overview of the issue and user reactions.

Few changes are as impactful as those you make to your system’s navigation elements. Toolbars and navigation bars are how users move around and do things in your app or website. Over time, people get used to where options are; changing their placement — even if done for good reasons — can lead to frustration. If you must change long-established navigation elements, test new versions extensively with users of varying degrees of experience. And if you don’t have good reasons to change your navigation elements, consider focusing on other aspects of your system instead.

The Curious Design of Mail’s Message Action Toolbar in iOS 13

Balancing Bottom-up and Top-down

A question I frequently encounter whenever I start a new information architecture project: What’s the right balance between defining an architecture from the top-down and leaving room for bottom-up structures to emerge?

The answer is different for each project. Some require a great deal of structure upfront, while others need just enough for bottom-up structures to emerge. The answer hinges on the type of environment we’re structuring, the team’s skills, the organization’s needs, and myriad other factors.

But what if this isn’t a dichotomy? What if we could design top-down structures broad enough (or perhaps deep enough) to allow for bottom-up organization to emerge organically? What architecture would lead to an environment that could be a receptacle for serendipity, happy accidents, improvisation — for humanity — while also accomplishing its business outcomes?

Suggested Searches in Apple Photos

One of the most amazing features enabled by machine learning algorithms is the ability to issue text searches on photos and images. Google Photos’s search abilities are one of its headline features. And Apple, too, has been working to improve search in the Photos app that comes with iPhones and other iOS devices.

As an iOS user, I’ve been watching Photos’s search functionality improve over the last couple of years. Although it’s a bit slower than I’d prefer, it’s still very useful. I can search by dates and common terms (e.g. “Halloween”) and often find what I’m looking for. However, sometimes the search yields no results at all — even when the term I’m searching for is a common word.

Recently I noticed a change in Photos’s search results UI that makes its operation more transparent:

Searching Apple Photos on the iPhone

What’s going on here? I’ve typed the word gorilla into the search box and Photos finds no results. (Yes, I do have photos of gorillas in my collection.) Rather than leave me with nothing, Photos offers to broaden the scope of the search. I’m offered two alternate searches:

gorilla → Mammal
gorilla → Elephant

There’s clearly some term mapping happening behind the scenes. That’s not unusual for search systems. What’s intriguing is how Apple has represented the mapping of terms, with the arrow pointing from my original search term to the suggested alternatives. Neither alternative is very useful to me in this particular case, but I understand why the system is suggesting these terms. (“Mammal” is a broader category of which gorillas are a member, and “elephant” is a sibling in that group.) That said, I appreciate the ability to change the scope of the search with one tap and the compact clarity of this UI.

TAOI: Disneyland App

The architecture of information:

Digital experiences are changing our understanding of physical environments. Google Maps gives you the ability to walk around a new city as though you’d known it for a long time. And should you develop a sudden hankering for ice cream, Yelp allows you to locate the nearest gelateria. The most noticeable change comes from layering information on the environment. For example, when trying to decide between two neighboring restaurants you’re no longer constrained to judging them solely by their appearance; you can also peruse their reviews in Yelp. Restaurant A has four-and-a-half stars, whereas restaurant B has three — A it is!

The number of stars is information about the place. You won’t find it in the physical place itself, but in its representation in an information environment which you access through your magical pocket-sized slab of glass. We’ve grown used to these augmented interactions with physical space, and mostly take them for granted. But recently I had one such interaction with an app I hadn’t used before, and which stood out to me for 1) its clarity of purpose and 2) the degree to which that purpose changed the experience of the place. I’m referring to the Disneyland app.

My family and I visited Disneyland a few weeks ago. We hadn’t been in five years, and the Disneyland app was one of the novelties since our last visit. The app presents a map of the Disney theme parks. As such it mostly replaced the parks’ old (and sometimes beautiful) paper-based maps. Thanks to the phone’s sensors, the Disneyland app makes it easy to figure out where you are, where to go next, and how to get there. But the app adds an additional key piece of information to the experience that can’t be had with paper-based maps: attraction wait times. Over every representation of an attraction in the park, you see a little callout that indicates how long you’ll have to wait in line to experience that ride or show:

Disneyland app

This piece of information is always available at all levels of zoom in the map. It’s the definitive element of the experience: in these maps, attraction wait times have the highest visual priority. As a result, wait times become the defining factor in sequencing the exploration of the park. The apps preferred answer to the question “What should we do next?” is always “Whatever is closest that has the shortest lines.”

This is an interesting choice that recalls the park’s old ticket levels. A long time ago, each Disneyland attraction required a separate ticket. Not all attractions used the same tickets; there were several levels ranging from A to E. “E-tickets,” such as the Haunted Mansion, were the most popular and desirable. These were considered the park’s premium attractions; their tickets were worth more than the others. This economic scheme influenced how visitors experienced the park. Ticket “coupon books” only included a limited number of E-tickets as compared to the lower denominations. Guests could buy more tickets inside the park, but having a limited number of the various level tickets affected choices. (I remember visiting Walt Disney World when it had a similar scheme, and hearing things like, “let’s visit this ride next, we have to use up our C-tickets.”)

The Disneyland app creates a similar economy by making attraction wait times the key informational element of the experience. When you’re trying to decide between two rides, knowing you’ll have to wait 65 minutes in line in one versus 15 minutes in another could be the key factor in your choice. (It was for my wife and me. Children get very cranky after waiting in long lines all day!) Our choosing to go on the ride with the lower wait times would contribute to slightly increasing that ride’s wait times and lowering the wait times for the more popular rides. I don’t have data, but my expectation is that this would help even out wait times throughout the park.

That is, of course, if all other things are equal — which they aren’t. The Haunted Mansion is a much more elaborate and compelling experience than Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Also, some rides have higher throughput than others. So the choice of riding one rather than the other doesn’t come down solely to which has the shortest waits.

That said, for someone like myself, who knows Disneyland very well, having this extra bit of information made the experience of visiting the park much better. In our two days at Disneyland, my family and I experienced more of the park than we’d ever been able to before. We also had more fun, since we spent a lower percentage of our time there in queues. But I wonder about the effect on folks who are less familiar with the parks. Will the emphasis on wait times drive them to prioritize less popular attractions over the park’s highlights? Adding feedback mechanisms to a system influences the way the system works. In what unexpected ways does this app change the experience of visiting Disneyland?

Neal Stephenson on Social Media

Speaking in an interview with Tyler Cowen, Neal Stephenson offers an excellent analysis of how social media has hurt civic discourse:

COWEN: You saw some of the downsides of social media earlier than most people did in Seveneves. It’s also in your new book, Fall. What’s the worst-case scenario for how social media evolved? And what’s the institutional failure? Why do many people think they’re screwing things up?

STEPHENSON: I think we’re actually living through the worst-case scenario right now, so look about you, and that’s what we’ve got. Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality.

And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem.

Mr. Stephenson’s observation corresponds to my experience of social media (especially Twitter): It’s not that folks are talking past each other, it’s that they’re not even interacting with people who don’t share their mental models. The mere hint of the possibility of an alternate take can lead to ostracism — or worse. Amplified through continuous validation and a complete lack of pushback, opinions replace facts as the basis for worldviews. To talk of filter bubbles is misleading: these aren’t tenuous membranes; they’re thick, hardened shells.

The interview continues:

COWEN: But what’s the fundamental problem there? Is it that decentralized communications media intrinsically fail because there are too many voices? Is there something about the particular structure of social media now?

STEPHENSON: The problem seems to be the fact that it’s algorithmically driven, and that there are not humans in the loop making decisions, making editorial, sort of curatorial decisions about what is going to be disseminated on those networks.

As such, it’s very easy for people who are acting in bad faith to game that system and produce whatever kind of depiction of reality best suits them. Sometimes that may be something that drives people in a particular direction politically, but there’s also just a completely nihilistic, let-it-all-burn kind of approach that some of these actors are taking, which is just to destroy people’s faith in any kind of information and create a kind of gridlock in which nobody can agree on anything.

In other words, it’s a structural problem. As such, it’s also systemic. Unmentioned in the interview is the driving force behind these algorithmic constructs: business models based on monetizing users’ attention. Incentivizing engagement leads to systems that produce fragmentation and conflict.

Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality (Ep. 71)