TAOI: Ten Years

The architecture of information:

A core principle of information architecture is that user interfaces change faster than their underlying structures. Given how quickly digital things change, this principle is easier to contemplate in the abstract than in practice.

“Bored coder” Neal Agarwal recently published a one-page website called Ten Years Ago, which showcases fourteen websites’ homepages as they looked in February 2011 (through the graces of the amazing Internet Archive, which deserves your support.) I took Neal’s page as a prompt to look at how websites have changed in a decade.

In Ten Years, I examine Apple, ESPN, Goodreads, Reddit, and IMDb. As expected, the sites look different than they did ten years ago. (Some more so than others.) However, their core navigation structures remain remarkably consistent.

As expected, the sites look different than they did ten years ago. (Some more so than others.) That said, their information architectures remain remarkably stable. As I’ve said many times before, structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel. These five sites offer compelling proof.

The Architecture of Information: Ten Years

TAOI: Mailchimp’s Product and Marketing Navigation Structures

My latest post for The Architecture of Information highlights the differences between Mailchimp’s product and marketing website navigation structures.

Apart from aesthetic considerations — i.e., color and font choices — Mailchimp’s marketing and product sites are very different from each other. They only share two navigation elements in common: the company logo, which in both cases leads to each system’s version of “home,” and search, which presents different interfaces on either site. Everything else — including, as I’ve pointed out, the navigation bar’s position and orientation on the screen — feels very different.

It’s not unusual for such structures to be different. After all, these sites serve very different needs and create very different contexts. However, Mailchimp’s product and marketing websites are very different, and worth studying.

I’m especially interested in the fact that Mailchimp’s primary product navigation relies on icons, some of which are rather obscure. Hovering over these icons reveals labels that clarify things a bit. But is it enough? Users must learn the system’s conceptual model to use it productively. I wonder, does hiding labels hinder their ability to learn the system?

Product and Marketing Navigation — The Architecture of Information

TAOI: The Order of Marvel Movies

In my latest post for The Architecture of Information, I highlight a change to how Disney+ allows viewers to browse Marvel movies. Per an article on The Verge,

When Disney Plus launched, the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies weren’t exactly organized. There were rows for featured titles, movies, and TV shows, but everything was kind of strewn together. Almost every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie you wanted was here — you just had to spend a minute finding it. Now, however, it looks like Disney has changed around the Marvel section a tad to make it, well, make sense.

In the screenshot below (taken from a Disney Plus US account), the Marvel films are separated into their specific phases, and then there’s an additional row for people who want to watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe in order as the events occur within the universe timeline. (There are some arguable inaccuracies in the Timeline Order row, but that’s for another blog post.)

Screenshot: The Verge
Screenshot: The Verge

Changing how the sorting of movies to mirror the user’s mental model leads to a better experience. It’s great to see high-profile services like Disney+ get better by improving their IA.

The Order of Marvel Movies – The Architecture of Information

TAOI: Browse by Color

In my latest post at The Architecture of Information, I unpack an intriguing non-verbal navigation system:

Most website navigation systems rely on words. Terms like Products, Industries, and About Us have become standard; many companies have such phrases or subtle variants on their websites. Other labels are more particular to each company or industry. But in general, website navigation systems are primarily verbal.

Some websites break that norm. Color Palettes is an interesting example.

As you may have surmised, this site’s navigation uses colored tiles instead of words. It also has two modes, one of which adds a useful bit of functionality.

I love examining unusual navigation systems. Have you seen a website or app that implements interesting ways for users to move around? Please let me know.

Browse by Color – The Architecture of Information

The Bad IA of Streaming Services

Alan Sepinwall writing in Rolling Stone:

The part of the streaming shell game that I’ve never been able to fully understand — and that has somehow gotten worse with each passing year and each new service debut — is just how bad the user experience is on all of them.

The article lists several aspects of today’s streaming services that offer a subpar experience to viewers. Among them, it includes bad information architecture:

With the exception of Disney+, which has several clearly delineated brands and genres that are easy to explore(*), the streamers seem to go out of their way to encourage endless browsing, as if time spent on the service is valuable to them even if you never get around to actually watching anything. Browsing is difficult, direct searching is somehow worse, and the whole thing seems to have been made by one of those men Alfred tried to warn Bruce Wayne about, who just want to watch the world burn.

(*) And even they’re not perfect — all the Marvel movies are arrayed pretty randomly, which makes it more difficult to attempt to, say, rewatch the MCU in order.

I’m a customer of several of these services, and have experienced all of the issues listed in the article. I get the impression these systems have been designed “screen-first”: lots of investment on the front end and little on the underlying UX architecture.

Problems such as searching and browsing large catalogs have been solved in other domains. Why are streaming services so hard to use in 2020? I suspect the answer is a mix of business models that aren’t aligned with customer needs/wants and a lack of awareness of IA best practices. The latter is relatively easy to fix.

As a way of experiencing video content, streaming is better than the old broadcast model. But all of these services could be so much better with some mindful IA and conceptual modeling. Do you know someone who works in one of these companies, or work there yourself? If so, I’d love to talk — please get in touch.

Who Loses Big in the Great Streaming Wars? The User

TAOI: Gmail’s New Conceptual Model

The architecture of information:

Yesterday, Google announced an upcoming Gmail redesign. Here’s an overview:

As you can see, these aren’t cosmetic tweaks, but significant changes to Gmail’s structure. Where previously the app aspired to be a great email client, now its stated goal is to be “your new home for work.” This goal reflects three fundamental premises:

  • Much of what many of us do for “work” consists of coordinating with and informing each other
  • Most of these communications happen over digital channels (especially now that many of us are working “remotely”)
  • Email is no longer the only (or even primary) channel for these communications
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TAOI: Reimagining Email

The architecture of information:

The team at Basecamp has developed a new product, Hey. It seems like an interesting — and opinionated (I mean this in a good way) — reimagining of how email works. If you have some time, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried’s video introduction is worth your attention:

Hey was in the news yesterday because its mobile app is being pulled from Apple’s iOS App Store, and Basecamp’s management is vocally fighting the move. Much has been written about that situation already, and I won’t say more about it here. I say it “seems” interesting because I haven’t yet tried it firsthand; currently, access to the product is by-invitation. My thoughts below are based solely on the product’s website and the video above.

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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)