On Rules and Barbarism

Students often want to know if they’re doing things the “right” way. They want to learn the “standard” way of making sitemaps, wireframes, storyboards, etc. Many are anxious about doing these things “wrong.” I tell them that although there are best practices, there are no strict rules for many of these things. The purpose of making any design artifact is to clarify and communicate intent. What’s “right” is what best articulates what they’re trying to do.

Recognizing what’s right requires practice, and that takes time. As professors, we aim to provide feedback so students can improve over time. Still, I suspect it’s no comfort to answer the question of how to do things “right” with “it depends.” Speaking with a student this week, I thought of a good analogy for what I’m trying to get across: Orwell’s six rules of writing.

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Don’t Make Me Think, Xbox Edition

I’m a fan of obvious labels. If you’re naming a product, category, navigation link, or any other item that people will need to pick from among alternatives, obvious trumps clever all the time. Earlier this year, I wrote about how the new Harley Quinn superhero movie underperformed due (at least in part) to its obscure title. Now we have an example of a label that doesn’t fail because it’s obscure, but because it’s not differentiated enough.

Microsoft just released its latest generation of Xbox gaming consoles. This product line has a history of non-obvious names. While the first device was simply called “Xbox,” its followup was called Xbox 360. Confusingly, the third generation of the product was called Xbox One. There’s still a version of that third-gen device on the market called Xbox One X. The new version, generation 4, is called Xbox Series X.

According to an article on The Verge, sales of the Xbox One X have surged following the newer device’s release. The article speculates that this may be due to confusion about the product name:

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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

Learn a Second Language

Do you want to become a better information architect? Learn a second language.

IA is focused on establishing distinctions. You do this with words. As a result, mastery of language is important for information architects. You master language by reading and writing — especially reading things that are outside your comfort zone. (One of the under-appreciated wonders of reading using tablets and e-readers is that they allow you to look up the definition words on the spot.) The broader your vocabulary, the more nuanced the distinctions you’re able to draw. (That said, you should avoid obscure terms when designing something for a mass audience. Not everybody will have as broad a vocabulary as you.)

But even having a broad vocabulary in one language may not be enough. Language is so foundational to how we experience reality that we can easily take it for granted. It’s the ground on which we stand. If we only know the one ground, we risk assuming everyone is standing on it. That isn’t the case.

Learning a new language forces you to realize that languages are constructs. Yes, they all have certain things in common. All languages have words for numbers, for example. But things like categorization schemes can vary significantly. Some languages have category terms that don’t exist in other languages. Some have more categories for a particular domain, others less. This video makes the point:

You can learn about these things intellectually. But you only grok the differences deeply when you must communicate with people who speak a different language. You start questioning things you’ve taken for granted most of your life, such as figures of speech and metaphors. You become aware of the historical contingencies of languages. None of the major ones have emerged fully formed; they’ve changed and influenced each other over time. And you, too, have the power to influence how they change.

Wittgenstein said that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” You must know the limits. This requires you to transcend them. Learning a second language — and putting yourself in a position to rely on it — pushes you beyond the limits of your mother tongue. A second language throws contrast, making the edges between distinctions visible. It’s an important skill for people who aspire to design worlds through words.

Information Metaphors

The ways we deal with information since the advent of the web are new. Although people have dealt with information in the past — through spoken language, print media, in the environment, etc. — the web changed how we produce and use information. We don’t yet have precise language to describe the effects of this change upon us as individuals and societies.

Language reveals how we think about things. Given the newness of the experience, I’m curious about the metaphors we use to talk about how we use of information online. I’ve noticed three come up often:

  • information as resource,
  • information as sustenance, and
  • information as an environment.

Let’s look at them in more detail.

Information as Resource

Under this metaphor, we see information as something to be bought, sold, mined, traded, shared, etc. We can own information, gain access to it, stream it. We must protect our information lest it fall into the wrong hands.

Examples:

“A new commodity spawns a lucrative, fast-growing industry, prompting antitrust regulators to step in to restrain those who control its flow. A century ago, the resource in question was oil. Now similar concerns are being raised by the giants that deal in data, the oil of the digital era.” — The Economist

“Think twice about sharing your social security number with anyone, unless it’s your bank, a credit bureau, a company that wants to do a background check on you or some other entity that has to report to the IRS. If someone gets their hands on it and has information such your birth date and address they can steal your identity and take out credit cards and pile up other debt in your name.” — Christina DesMarais, TIME

Information as Sustenance

This metaphor posits that information is like food and drink; it changes us as we consume it. Information enters you and transforms you. You are what you eat; you are what you read online. As with food, you have the ability to say “no” to information, to change your consumption patterns. You could go on an “information diet” if you wished.

Examples:

“We monitor what we eat and drink, optimizing our diet for health and performance, not just enjoyment–and yet we can be heedless about what we read, watch, and listen to. Our information diet is often the result of accident or happenstance rather than thoughtful planning. Even when we do choose deliberately, the intent behind much of our media consumption is simply to soothe or distract ourselves, not to nourish or enrich. It’s like having french fries for every meal.” — Ed Batista

“We define digital nutrition as two distinct but complementary behaviors. The first is the healthful consumption of digital assets, or any positive, purposeful content designed to alleviate emotional distress or maximize human potential, health, and happiness. The second behavior is smarter decision-making, aided by greater transparency around the composition and behavioral consequences of specific types of digital content.” —
Michael Phillips Moskowitz

Information as Environment

Another metaphor is that of information as something you inhabit; an environment. Under this metaphor, information defines the boundaries of spaces where we interact. We’ve been using this type of language from very early in the online revolution; we’ve been talking of “chat rooms” and “home pages” for a long time.

Examples:

“When all discussion takes place under the eye of software, in a for-profit medium working to shape the participants’ behavior, it may not be possible to create the consensus and shared sense of reality that is a prerequisite for self-government. If that is true, then the move away from ambient privacy will be an irreversible change, because it will remove our ability to function as a democracy.” — Maciej Cegłowski

“Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word ‘privacy’ means in the process).

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.” — Yancey Strickler

While all three metaphors are valid, you won’t be surprised to learn I favor the “environment” metaphor — as evidenced by the title of my book.

The “resource” metaphor brings with it the language of ownership and trade. The “sustenance” metaphor reduces our agency to which types of information we choose to let in. (After all, most of us don’t produce our own food.) While both are valid, they miss an important angle: the fact that our interactions with each other and our social institutions are increasingly mediated through information. The language of inhabitation nudges us to consider the pervasive influence of information on our actions and empowers us to reconfigure our information structures to affect outcomes. It gives us agency with regards to information while acknowledging the degree to which it influences our decisions.

Have you found other information metaphors? Please let me know.

Karl Popper on Definitions

Although it’s less common today, in the past, my peer community has engaged in what we call DTDT — “Defining the Damned Thing.” The term describes a discussion that devolves into the ​definition of terms. For example, a discussion about user experience design may lead someone to ask, “What do you mean by ‘experience’?” whereafter the conversation can go down a semantic rabbit hole.

Some folks have a strong aversion to DTDT. However, it’s crucial to ensure that we’re aligned on meaning — especially when we’re using relatively new terms. Despite its popularity among designers and techie folks, “user experience” is still a new term; I’d bet that most people don’t have a clear grasp of what it means. So there’s value to ensuring that everybody’s on the same footing with the language we’re using.

As my friend Andrew Hinton has eloquently written, definitions play an important role in a maturing discipline — and that necessitates these conversations. That said, there’s a flipside to DTDT: it can give the illusion that intelligent discussion is happening when, in fact, no progress is being made. I suspect this is what upsets most people who protest against DTDT.

I was reminded of this issue when I saw this clip from an interview with the philosopher Karl Popper:

In my opinion, it’s a task in life to train oneself to speak as clearly as possible. This isn’t achieved by paying special attention to words, but by clearly formulating theses, so formulated as to be criticizable. People who speak too much about words or concepts or definitions don’t actually bring anything forward that makes a claim to truth. So you can’t do anything against it. A definition is a pure conventional matter.

He goes on to expand on why he thinks definitions aren’t helpful to philosophy:

They only lead to a pretentious, false precision, to the impression that one is particularly precise. But it’s a sham precision, it isn’t genuine clarity. For that reason, I’m against the discussion of terms and definitions. I’m rather for plain, clear speaking.

That’s the goal: alignment through plain, clear speaking.

Karl Popper on Definitions (1974)

A Bold Example of Semantic Pollution

Sometimes language changes slowly and inadvertently. The meaning of words can change over time as language evolves. That’s how many semantic environments become polluted: little by little. But sometimes change happens abruptly and purposefully. This past weekend, AT&T gave us an excellent example of how to pollute a semantic environment in one blow.

Today’s mobile phone networks work on what’s known as 4G technology. It’s a standard that’s widely adopted by the mobile communications industry. When your smartphone connects to a 4G network, you see a little icon on your phone’s screen that says either 4G or LTE. These 4G networks are plenty fast for most uses today.

However, the industry is working on the next generation network technology called — you guessed it — 5G. The first 5G devices are already appearing on the market. That said, widespread rollout won’t be immediate: the new technology requires new hardware on phones, changes to cell towers, and a host of other changes. It’ll likely be a couple of years before the new standard becomes mainstream.

Despite these technical hurdles, last weekend AT&T started issuing updates to some Android phones in their network that change the network label to 5G. Nothing else is different about these devices; their hardware is still the same and they still connect using the same network technology. So what’s the reason for the change? AT&T has decided to label some advanced current-generation technologies “5G E.” When the real 5G comes around, they’ll call that “5G+.”

This seems like an effort to make the AT&T network look more advanced than those of its competitors. The result, of course, is that this change confuses what 5G means. It erodes the usefulness of the term; afterward, it’ll be harder for nontechnical AT&T customers to know what technology they’re using. It’s a bold example of how to co-opt language at the expense of clarity and understanding.

AT&T decides 4G is now “5G,” starts issuing icon-changing software updates

Working in a Second Language

Love this exchange between Daniel Kahneman and Tyler Cowen:

COWEN: Do you think that working outside of your native language in any ways influenced your ideas on psychology? It makes you more aware of thinking fast versus thinking slow? Or not?
KAHNEMAN: It’s something I used to think about in the context . . . I’m from Israel, and it was thinking whether there was something in common to Israeli intellectuals operating in a second language. And I thought that, in a way, it can be an advantage to operate in a second language, that there are certain things . . . that you can think about the thing itself, not through the words.
COWEN: It’s like lower sunk costs in a way.
KAHNEMAN: I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but I thought that this was not a loss for me, to do psychology in a second language.

This resonates with my experience as somebody who operates primarily using a second language. Working in English has made my work better, not worse. It’s been a forcing function that has made me more aware of the contingency of language; a significant effect given how central language is to information architecture.

Daniel Kahneman on Cutting Through the Noise (Ep. 56- Live at Mason)