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!

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