A Personal Information Architecture

My work has been mostly digital for over twenty-five years. As a result, I have a lot of files lying around. Some are things I’m currently working on, while others are older and less relevant to my current needs. But all of it is important to me. And it’s not just files; I also keep archives of my digital communications. This includes email mailboxes going back almost twenty years, chat threads, and (more recently) Slack channels. I also manage several critical long-term databases, including a password manager.

Making this stuff findable is a challenge to those of us who work with computers. A new computer user will soon discover that saving all her files to the desktop doesn’t scale. And while search systems in modern operating systems (such as Spotlight on the Mac and Cortana in Windows) are pretty good, they’re not omniscient — and even if they were, you often wouldn’t know what to search for to find the information you need. As a result, we still create folders to store files for longer-term retrieval.

How do you decide how to group these files? There are many options open to you. For example, if you’re a freelance designer, you could create a folder for each project, a folder for each client, or a folder for each type of file. After a while of doing this, you’ll discover this, too, doesn’t scale. Then you’ll experiment with nesting these folder structures: a folder for each client which contains folders for that client’s projects.

This folder/file structure is an information architecture designed for an audience of one: your future self. You need to be able to retrieve the things you need when you need them, which will probably be many months (or even years) in the future. This requires that you make predictions about how you will expect to look for the things you need at a different time.

This entails articulating your mental model of your digital stuff. For example, if you’re a freelance designer, client projects are most likely central to your work. As a result, projects will be an important factor in how you organize your personal information environment. (I have such a structure on​ my computer: I have a folder called “Projects” where I keep all my project files together.) If you follow this route, you’ll want to establish a consistent naming scheme for these folders, ideally featuring the project name as the label.

One of the advantages of this method is that it allows you to replicate this structure in systems other than your computer’s file/folder structure. For example, you could create a series of folders in your email application where you keep conversation threads related to each project. For sanity’s sake, you should make the naming structure consistent across systems; the project’s folder in the Finder should have the same name as the project’s folder in the mail application.

But of course, not everything you deal with is a project. So you also need to understand what the difference is between a project and not-a-project. You’ll need to store and find many things that are not-a-project. How do you group them? In my case, I have a folder in my computer called “Reference” where I keep the not-a-project stuff that I may need to refer to in the future. Under this folder, I have several sub-folders grouped by subject matter. For example, I one of these folders contains documents for the house where my family and I live.

How granular do you go with the grouping? That depends on several factors, including how many documents you plan to keep in a folder and how frequently you expect to need them. A folder that contains several hundred files probably needs sub-folders. My “House” folder has less than a dozen files in it, so it doesn’t have any sub-folders in it.

Of course, that folder isn’t called “House.” I’ve lived in several houses in the past twenty-five years. When I look for these files, I need to know which house I’m looking at. The labeling of folders is important if you want to make groupings unambiguous. (In my case, the folder’s label is the house’s street address.)

This structure didn’t emerge spontaneously; it evolved over a long period of time. There was a time in my life when I hadn’t lived in more than one house, so I didn’t need a complicated file/folder structure to store my house-related information. Personal information architectures change over time as your information needs change.

As with all information architectures, creating and managing an effective personal IA requires discipline to group and label things consistently, and flexibility to recognize when grouping and labeling schemes require tweaking. Achieving a balance between consistency and flexibility can lead to a structure that feels natural; an extension of your mind.

Consider the Avocado

Information architects establish distinctions that make things easier to find and understand. We set things apart into groups that make sense to people. By definition, things in one group are different from things in another group — if for no other reason, by the fact that they are in different groups. When done well, the groupings are obvious; recognizable yet distinct. In many cases, groupings are not obvious. Arriving at the right grouping is often anything but.

Consider the avocado. Botanically, it’s a berry. Most folks probably don’t think of avocados as berries, which they associate with sweet dishes. People usually consume avocado with savory dishes: salads, guacamole, etc. If you were asked to group avocados with other items, where would you place them? It depends on many factors. Who is the audience for the grouping? What is the purpose of the grouping? What other items are being grouped?

Arriving at the right grouping requires understanding what avocados mean in a particular context to particular people. Avocados will be grouped differently in a grocery store than in a botanical lab. Grocery shoppers may think of avocados as vegetables, regardless of what botanists think. Botanists may think of avocados as berries, regardless of what grocery shoppers think.

One of the challenges of establishing effective information architectures is that we’re often tasked by botanists to establish groupings meant for grocery shoppers. While the botanists may understand that a different grouping is required for a different audience, the novel grouping may feel wrong to them. In their world, avocados will always be berries.

Existing incentive structures may make it difficult for the botanists to imagine alternative groupings. Remember, we’re talking about meaning. For these folks, having avocados show up in a group under anything other than the “berry” group can be interpreted as an existential threat, especially if these groupings are exposed to people outside the organization — and doubly so if revenues are being measured against the groupings. (“My team is responsible for berries. We ‘own’ avocados.”) As a result, information architects must often work within political environments that nudge towards particular groupings for reasons other than making things more findable and understandable.

This is challenging, but it can get even trickier: sometimes you want avocados to be found while also changing people’s perception of what avocados are. (Maybe the organization is trying to re-position them in the market.) These cases require walking a fine line. On the one hand, you want grocery shoppers to be able to find the avocados in the groups they expect them to be in. On the other, you also want these people to start thinking of the avocados as being part of a different group. On the other hand (yes — this is complex enough that it requires three hands) you have the botanists wanting to drive their preferred view of things.

How do you do it? There are various things you can try. For example, you can use one grouping for the mechanisms that allow people to find their way to the avocados and another for the context where the avocados sit in. You can also try to re-frame the avocado by establishing a marketing campaign. (“Avocados: The new miracle smoothie ingredient!“) You can establish thesauruses that map one term (“avocado”) to another (“berries”). In any case, you should carefully test the new organization scheme. When grouping things in novel ways, data is your friend.

IA work boils down to grouping things in ways that come across as “obvious,” even if they’re new. Where you place the avocado will depend on how people understand it to begin with; what it means to them. But where the avocado shows up will also affect how people understand it and what it means to them. Of course, what’s obvious to one set of people will be anything but to another set.

Ultimately, information architecture aims to change behavior through distinctions. IA has the power to do this. But grouping and labeling things to change behavior also entails great responsibility. The distinctions we layer on the world change how we understand it, the things in it, and ourselves. We must vie to establish distinctions that help nudge things towards positive outcomes at various levels. Yes, we’re helping sell more avocados, but we also want to know this will be good for those of us who eat them and for the societies who produce and consume them.

Enabling Transactions

You place a pack of chewing gum on the counter at a convenience store. The store attendant looks at the gum and says, “one ninety nine.” You place two dollar bills on the counter. The attendant takes the bills and hands you back a shiny one cent coin. You thank her and walk out, peeling the cellophane from the gum package as you head back to your car.

This minor episode reenacts a ritual members of our species have conducted for tens of thousands of years. We call it a transaction: two parties meet to exchange something of value. You want something; another person who has that thing establishes the conditions under which s/he would be willing to part with it; you reach consensus; you hand over something of value that satisfies those conditions; the other person gives you the thing you wanted; you both go on your ways. Ideally, both parties are better off after the transaction has concluded.

In some ways, history is the story of how we’ve perfected our ability to transact with each other. At an earlier stage, you and the store clerk would’ve had to negotiate over the relative value of the goods you were exchanging. (“A pack of gum? That’ll be a chicken thigh, thank you.”) Eventually we abstracted value into currencies we could all agree on, and then abstracted it even more. Eventually, it became pure information; today you can pay for the gum by waving your wristwatch over the counter — a magic trick that would’ve baffled our forebears.

The valuables we exchange musn’t be pecuniary. The penitent man confessing to a priest is transacting; he’s sharing intimate information about his life in exchange for peace of mind. Few such interactions stand on their own; more often they’re part of a sequence of interactions that follow one another, building trust one step at a time. The act of confession likely isn’t the penitent man’s first transaction with a priest; more likely he’s been in many prior interactions with other church functionaries that led up to this point in his life. Some of them served as gating factors that mark a significant transition in the person’s life. For example, the man had to become baptized at one point; i.e. he gained membership in a community in exchange for part of his identity and independence. That, too, was a transaction.

Architecture exists to support such transactions. The convenience store makes it possible for you to purchase gum much in the same way that the confessional makes it possible for the man to relieve his conscience. Buildings set aside parts of our physical environment for particular uses; the convenience store has all the necessary components to ease the exchange of gum for currency.

Information environments are also created to support transactions. I have a bag of rock salt sitting in my Amazon.com shopping cart at the moment. (My kids’ birthdays are coming up and I’m going to make ice cream for them.) I can’t buy it yet because this particular product is what Amazon calls an “add-on” item, which means I must buy other goods amounting to more than US$25 before I can purchase the rock salt. So now I’m wandering Amazon.com looking for other things I can buy. When I do find something, I will add it to my cart. Eventually, I will check out: I will click on a button that marks my consent, setting in motion a process wherein my credit card will be charged and a series of machines (and some humans) will gather the things I’ve requested and convey them to me.

I will undertake this transaction without overthinking it, much as you do when you pay for a pack of gum at the store. But this transaction is much more complicated than the exchange of money for a pack of gum. So much has had to happen beforehand for me to be able to do this. First finding out about Amazon.com, opening an account in the system (over a decade ago!), making my first purchase, eventually trying to purchase an “add-on​” item and figuring out that it’s a different type of good… All transactions, all critical moments that led up to this most recent purchase. (And those are only the transactions that involved Amazon — I also had to transact with my bank in order to secure the necessary credit to pay for the rock salt.) Information environments supported all of these interactions successfully, to the point where I now take them for granted.

In the past, at least one other human would’ve been required for me to be able to buy rock salt, but all we need now is a place designed to enable the required sequence of transactions. In buying the rock salt, I’m not transacting with another person in the way the penitent man transacts with a priest or you transact with a store clerk when you buy gum. When I shop on Amazon.com, I transact with the environment itself. People are still involved, but indirectly; some who work in logistics will fulfill my request (although one suspects their involvement, too, will whittle away in time) and those who designed, built, and manage the place where the transaction is happening. Increasingly the responsibility for enabling the exchange of value in our societies falls on the designers, developers, and the managers of the environments where we transact.

Information Architecture for Strategic Decision-making

Under pressure from the market, your organization is prompted to change. Perhaps the company hasn’t met its sales targets in the last couple of quarters, and something must be done to get customers excited about buying. Or maybe a new competitor is entering the space, or a new technology threatens our primary product. Whatever it is, the organization must respond — now!

But not all responses can take effect now. Some take more time than others. For example, launching a new family of products takes longer than tweaking the website that describes existing products. The appropriate response may be to start down both paths now, with the understanding that (parts of) the website redesign will be public before the new products come online.

The launch of a new range of products changes how customers understand the existing catalog, so the structure of the website must accommodate these future-facing developments. As a result, the website’s designers need to be aware of the company’s product roadmap so they can produce a new information architecture. Through new language and grouping, designers will create distinctions that will allow prospects and customers to find their way within the new range of products.

So far, this is a fairly standard scenario. However, it’s worth considering approaching things from the opposite perspective: what if the act of describing the distinctions of a range of products helps inform the product roadmap? In other words, what if we treated information architecture not as a tool for representing a strategic direction, but as an exercise in distinction-making that helps define what the direction should be?

Here’s an example. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, the company was in deep trouble. It was months away from bankruptcy. Among its many problems, Apple’s product catalog had grown bloated and undifferentiated; the company lacked clear direction. Jobs drew a simple diagram that set things back on track:

Steve Jobs's product matrix

This model whittled the company’s extensive range of products down to just four categories: professional desktop computers, consumer desktop computers, professional portable computers, and consumer portable computers. Gone were all the other things Apple was making — including the Newton, a product that was considered one of Apple’s most innovative at the time. This was a tough call that was reinforced by a simple, coherent, understandable set of distinctions​.

What’s interesting about this diagram is not just that it allowed the company to understand how existing products fit — or didn’t fit — into an understandable structure, but that it also revealed gaps in the product family. There were no clear products that fit into the consumer portable quadrant, for example; Apple developed the iBook to meet this part of the market.

Creating this diagram was an act of information architecture. Jobs established a new set of distinctions using a simple, coherent model that informed strategic decisions about what products needed to be developed.

Conceptual modeling of this sort is a key part of the design process when re-designing an information environment’s navigation systems. The upside: the skills designers bring to bear when establishing new distinctions can also be used to inform what products will be required to serve market needs. Rather than reacting to existing strategic product decisions, IA can help strategic decision-makers understand the space they’re acting in more clearly so they can make more informed, confident decisions about where to go next.

Are We Really “Consuming” Digital Media?

Mary Meeker’s annual internet trends report is out. As always, it’s essential reading for anyone involved in technology.

One trend highlighted in this year’s report caught my eye: We’re spending more time than ever online. In 2008, U.S. adults spent an average of 2.7 hours online every day. In 2017, it was 5.9 hours per day — more than twice as much. To put this into perspective, this means we’re spending on average close to a third of our waking hours online. That’s a lot of time.

What are we doing with our time online? I’ve seen the press describe it as “digital media consumption.” But is “media consumption” what’s really going on here? I doubt it. My sense is the phrase is a carryover from the world of television, where viewers were indeed passive.

Except for watching video (which admittedly is an important online activity for many), the things we do online are active: we work, shop, learn, gossip, and play there. To frame our online activity as “media consumption” is to do violence to the role information environments play in our lives.

Approaching the design of most online experiences with the expectation that they will be “consumed” borders on malpractice. We’re making places with information. We don’t consume places; we inhabit them. It’s time we start designing them for inhabitation, not consumption.

How To Grow a Digital Business Without Sacrificing Its Soul

Photo by Benreis CC BY 3.0 via [Wikimedia](https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bagel_lox_sesame_seeds_St._Lawrence_Market.JPG)
Photo by Benreis CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia

Many years ago, my wife and I heard about a new bagel shop that was opening near our apartment. We decided to check it out one Sunday morning. The place was charming: roomy enough to feel comfortable, but not bustling. There was a large selection of fresh bagels, an assortment of fixings (including many flavors of cream cheese), and a well-stocked self-serve coffee bar. We loved it; lounging there over the newspaper became part of our Sunday morning routine.

It wasn’t long before other people discovered the bagel shop. Soon the place was crowded, and the experience suffered. Ordering became a chore, with lines that stretched out of the store. The once quiet place became packed and noisy. Worst of all, open tables became a rarity. We changed our routine to arrive close to opening time to get one​, but then we would feel guilty about lounging around when others were waiting to sit.

Eventually, the owner leased the store next door and the bagel shop grew to three times its previous size. The expansion relieved some of the shop’s most pressing issues; now it was easier to find a place to sit. However, the quality of the food suffered and the relaxed experience of the early days was gone. The new shop was OK — but it wasn’t the same. At three times its former size, it couldn’t be. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good business anymore; it probably made more money in its new digs. But the soul was gone.

Change is a central part of doing business. If things aren’t going well, you must do something about it. But when things are going well, you must also do something about it. Staying still is the only option not on the table. How the business responds to the always-changing context it participates in (and helps create) will be one of the factors that define its level of success.

Architecture is a critical factor in that response. The bagel shop responded to increased demand with an architectural intervention that changed the character of the business. Even though on the surface things looked the same, a threefold increase in the shop’s physical environment made for an entirely different experience.

The laws of physics don’t apply to digital businesses in the same way they do to a bagel shop. A digital business can scale without needing to physically grow. However, the architecture of its information environments plays a critical role in how customers perceive and interact with the business. As with the physical business, the architecture of a digital business must change if it’s to evolve.

A digital business looking to level up has many options open to it. For example, a product could be on track to become a family of products or a platform. Or perhaps the business is expanding from an advertising-supported business model to a paid-membership model. “More of the same” is not on offer in such cases. The business must rethink its information architecture. Yes, this will impact its website and app navigation structures. But more than that, it’ll result in a new conceptual model that will affect all aspects of the experience.

A thoughtfully designed architecture will result in a new UX that will enable the business towards the next stage of its evolution, without compromising the things that made it great. A solid information architecture is a platform for enabling directed emergence: aimed towards a fixed objective, but open-ended enough to respond to real-world conditions as they arise; a platform for sustained growth that doesn’t sacrifice the soul of the business.

On Notices of Privacy Policy Updates

Like you, these days I find my inbox flooded with GPRS compliance emails. Some come from services I use every day. Others are from services I signed up for a long time ago, and no longer use. Still others are from services I can’t recall signing up for. Did I open accounts with these companies unwittingly? Did someone open an account on my behalf? Did I open an account with another business that was then acquired by the company I’m getting the email from? I find myself at a loss, and quickly move on to the next email.

Compliance with the new rules is important to the companies sending the emails, but as a user the collective effect is a burden. I have little incentive to do anything other than archive the messages. Still, the (seemingly) endless stream of GPRS emails reminds me of how scattered my identity is in information environments.

Each of these companies has a digital representation of me somewhere in their systems. They aren’t centrally coordinated; each company’s dataset is an independent representation of my information. These snapshots of me vary in fidelity. For example, those that have my physical address as of five years ago are wrong. Others are newer, and therefore have better information. There is no one “true” representation they can sync to, and I have little incentive to keep them all up to date, since I don’t have plans to visit many of these places anymore.

As we move between physical places in the “real” world, our identity comes with us. When I visit my local grocery store, people know who I am. When I go next door to the local pharmacy, I’m the same person. In my pocket is a wallet with little plastic cards that identify me: a driver’s license, various credit cards, a transit card, etc. These identifiers travel with me as I go from place to place. I show them as needed, and they remain in my possession.

Moving through online places doesn’t work like this. When you first enter most information environments, you’re anonymous. As in the real world, you must identify yourself if you want to transact there. Once you do, your identity is somehow no longer in your possession; a new instance of “you” has been created in a database which you don’t own. This digital “you” starts life as (mostly) a blank slate and gets a history of its own as you interact with the company’s services.

When you’ve been online as long as I have, you have hundreds of such “yous” lying around. Some are dormant, others very active; all are scattered, out of your control in ways no government regulation can ultimately rein in. Occasionally you’ll read news about one of these “you’s” homestead being compromised, your personal information trickling out to — who knows where? — without much you can do about it other than changing your password, the damage long done. As the GPRS compliance emails remind us, we can’t speak of our online identity in the singular; each of us is a plurality that is only partially under our control.

Information Architecture as MacGuffin

SALLAH: Indy, you have no time. If you still want the ark, it is being loaded onto a truck for Cairo.
INDIANA: Truck? What truck?

This exchange from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) leads to one of the most thrilling car chases in movie history, in which our hero, Indiana Jones, fights his way onto the vehicle mentioned above. Onboard the truck is the Ark of the Covenant, which Nazis are trying to smuggle out of Egypt so their boss — Adolf Hitler — can use it to take over the world.

Sounds like a pretty important thing, right? Well, it isn’t. (Spoiler alert!) By the end of the movie, the crated ark is wheeled into a nondescript government warehouse packed with similar crates as far as the eye can see. The implication: this thing, which we’ve just spent a couple of hours obsessing about, will soon be forgotten — as it should be. You don’t want the audience to go home thinking about the implications of having something as powerful as the ark out and about in the world.

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Places Are Making You Stupid

There are great tacos in the San Francisco Bay Area. My family and I are lucky to live near a small restaurant that makes good ones. It’s run by a family who knows what they’re doing when it comes to tacos. They also know what they’re doing when it comes to pricing, hospitality, and ambiance, so the place is always packed. It’s one of our favorite restaurants. Alas, as good as the tacos are, I have a beef with the place: it makes us stupid.

You see, one of the things about this restaurant that makes it popular is its cornice lined with televisions, always tuned to soccer matches. This feature of the place makes it difficult for my family to do what we want to do when we hang out: focus on each other. I’m a middle-aged man, and I find it difficult to keep my gaze from wandering to the screens. For my young children, it’s almost impossible. As a result, our conversations in this place seldom get deep; they’re jagged and scattered. (Until the food arrives — then conversation stops altogether. They are good tacos.)

You could say it’s not a big deal. We’re not at the taco place to do anything “mission critical,” right? But what if we are? What if we miss an opportunity to do a small kindness for each other, or fail to mention something that matters a great deal? (Or worse — what if we do say it but the other person misses it because somebody just scored a goal?) These little moments are the stuff our relationships — our lives — are made of. And this place snatches them from us. Its unstated policy is that the tribal experience of organized sports matters more than the experience of an intimate conversation.

Still, we’ve made a conscious decision to be there. Sometimes we’re not given a choice. For example, a friend of mine always complains about having to work in an open office “cube farm” where her co-workers make constant noises that destroy her concentration. The quality of her work in that environment is different than it’d be in a place that allowed her greater control over her attention. She can’t help but work there, and her work suffers. I, on the other hand, can choose where to work. I’m writing these words in my local public library. I find it easier to work here; the arrangement of furniture, the levels of light, the silence — all are conducive to helping get into a state of flow with my writing. This place is the converse of the taco restaurant or the open plan office: it makes me smarter.

So places can either augment or degrade your cognitive abilities. Some physical environments — such as the taco place — don’t let you do much about it; a quality conversation requires you to go elsewhere. In a noisy cube farm, you can shield your attention by putting on noise-isolation earphones. (Suggestion: Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts.) Other places, like the library, augment some abilities (thinking, reading, writing) but not others (conversing.)

You can improve your cognitive abilities by re-configuring your physical environment — or moving altogether. That said, it’s worth noting that if you’re like most of us you’re also subject to interruptions from your electronic devices. Often, the configuration of these information environments will have as much of an impact on your performance as the configuration of your physical environments. So for a quick cognitive boost when you need to get things done, switch your devices to “do not disturb” mode. It’ll make you smarter, wherever you are.