TAOI: Twitter Bookmarks

The architecture of information:

Earlier this week, Twitter launched a new feature: Bookmarks, which allow users to save a tweet for later reference. Many people (myself included) have used Twitter’s “Like” feature to do this in the past. But liking is different than bookmarking, and adding this feature is a way of clarifying Twitter’s ontology.

Although it seems like an intriguing addition to Twitter, I don’t need another inbox in my life. I’m a long-time practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, so I seek to reduce the number of nooks where I’m storing stuff for later retrieval. (I already have an Instapaper queue that I haven’t visited in months and which is gnawing at my conscience.) Twitter’s Bookmarks seems like another such place. Still, it may be useful if it helps make clearer the intent behind “liking” stuff in the Twitter environment.

Via The Verge

TAOI: Changes to Facebook’s Newsfeed

The architecture of information:

Facebook is constantly tweaking the algorithms they use to select which items appear on your newsfeed. In a recent blog post, the company announced upcoming tweaks that will have an important impact on the structure of the environment:

Today we use signals like how many people react to, comment on or share posts to determine how high they appear in News Feed.

With this update, we will also prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people. To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed. These are posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to – whether that’s a post from a friend seeking advice, a friend asking for recommendations for a trip, or a news article or video prompting lots of discussion.

We will also prioritize posts from friends and family over public content, consistent with our News Feed values.

This is a big deal, not just for users but also for commercial entities using Facebook as a platform. The way I read this post, these commercial posts will be de-prioritized in favor of posts from friends and family. As a Facebook user, I’m excited about this, but I can see how this is going to hurt many businesses.

In the near-term, Facebook itself may be one of the businesses hurt by the change. Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects some of the company’s engagement metrics to go down as a result. (Read: Facebook’s advertising business may suffer.) The tradeoff, according to Zuckerberg, is that time spent in Facebook will be more valuable for its users.

I’ve been critical of Facebook in the past because of the way it monetizes its users’ attention. This change sounds like a responsible step towards an information environment that is more respectful of its users’ needs.

Via The Verge

TAOI: Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

The architecture of information:

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a popular web video series created by and starring Jerry Seinfeld. Originally published through Crackle, the series recently moved to Netflix.

Most Netflix video series are grouped in numbered “seasons,” mirroring the way TV shows have been released in the past. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is also grouped in batches, but these are not called seasons. Instead, they’re called “collections,” and they have quirky names:

This approach reinforces the show’s theme (coffee) and silliness. It also raises interesting issues. The Netflix UI relies on the user knowing what seasons are, so there’s no need for additional labels for season selectors. This is not as clear given this show’s quirky labels:

Another issue is that season-based shows have an explicit sequence: shows produced in season one precede those in season two. I don’t know if that’s true in this organization scheme. These labels hint at themes for each collection; I expect shows in “Light & Sweet” to be, well, light and sweet.

Ultimately, the underlying “grouping by season” structure remains; what varies is the labeling of individual collections. Streaming services such as Netflix aren’t beholden to the traditional constraints of TV publishing. This show’s taxonomy hints at a different way of consuming TV content, one that eschews sequential order in favor of the exploration of themes that span multiple episodes.

TAOI: Twitter Threads

The architecture of information:

I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. On the one hand, it’s served me as a virtual water cooler, allowing me to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. (Especially important when I lived in a part of the world that lacked an active design community.) But Twitter has also become a source of anxiety, frustration, and abuse. This is partly due to the place having grown despite being devoid of a vision of what it ought to be.

One of the signs of this lack of vision is how many of Twitter’s key features have been adoptions of user hacks. Addressing people by their @-name, hashtags, and retweets were all user inventions. Tweet threads is the latest such innovation adopted by Twitter.

Threads first emerged as a way to overcome the platform’s 140-character post limit. Users would reply to their own tweets, often numbering them to create a sequence. While threads are useful (in that they allow for longer ideas), they’re are also difficult to write and read. This new feature should fix that.

I’m glad Twitter has added a way to make threads easier to create, but I don’t understand why we need this at all. We already have an effective medium for long-form writing. It’s called a blog, a format that has many advantages over Twitter threads. Given that you’re reading this on one, you know where I stand on this.

TAOI: A Taxonomy of Trust

The architecture of information:

The Trust Project is a consortium of news organizations that aims to “build a more trustworthy and trusted press.” They’ve defined a taxonomy of “Trust Indicators” to help add context to news stories so readers can get a sense of where the information is coming from. The taxonomy consists of eight core indicators:

  • Best Practices
  • Author/Reporter Expertise
  • Type of Work
  • Citations and References
  • Methodology
  • Local Reporting
  • Diverse Voices
  • Actionable Feedback

These indicators in turn have attributes that account for such details as the publication’s corrections policy, its ownership structure, authors’ area(s) of expertise, and so on. The full list is available in the Trust Project’s website.

As part of its initiatives to fight fake news, Facebook has said it will begin adding these credibility attributes to news stories. This should allow its users to make more informed decisions about their sources for news.

Improving contextual awareness is always a good thing. I hope this initiative helps curtail the spread of misinformation by increasing transparency.

TAOI: Google Maps’s Evolution

The architecture of information:

Google Maps on Android

How do you show meaningful geographic information at various scales in a small screen? That’s the challenge faced by designers of mapping applications on smartphones.

Both Google and Apple — makers of the two most popular maps applications — keep evolving their apps to improve their clarity and information density. (Justin O’Beirne has published a fascinating look at how Google and Apple Maps evolved over the course of a year. Worth checking out.”)

Yesterday, the Google Maps team announced a new look for the app:

First, we’ve updated the driving, navigation, transit and explore maps to better highlight the information most relevant to each experience (think gas stations for navigation, train stations for transit, and so on). We’ve also updated our color scheme and added new icons to help you quickly identify exactly what kind of point of interest you’re looking at.

The latter point is particularly interesting to me. Points of interest are marked with a variety of icons that can be in one of eight colors:

Google Maps's new color scheme

The combination of colors with the form of the icons gives you information about what they are in a very compact form:

Some of Google Maps's new icons

The first thing that comes to mind when I see such schemes is, “what happens with people who are color-blind?” This particular application doesn’t appear to rely completely on color (icons are a fallback), but color is central to the maps’ visual hierarchy and some of these seem awfully close.

That said, Google Maps and Apple Maps do an admirable job of conveying useful information in smartphone screens. Designers of such apps face various challenges that aren’t present in many other systems, including the fact that users can arbitrarily vary the scale of the map. This requires careful consideration of hierarchy: knowing which elements to present when is key. It’s worth studying the ongoing evolution of these apps as they move to display ever more information in the same constrained space.

Via The Verge

TAOI: Netflix’s Micro-genres

The architecture of information:

If you stop someone on the street and ask him or her for a list of movie genres, they’ll probably recite a few familiar ones: action/adventure, comedies, dramas, documentaries, and so on. If you ask a few folks, you’ll probably hear lots of overlap between them. I’d also venture most people’s lists have less than ten items in them.

Netflix’s list of genres, on the other hand, has tens of thousands of items in it. Of course, nobody is expected to navigate such a long taxonomy by themselves; instead, the system uses it to recommend new movies to its users. Somebody who’s looking at an “absurd stoner comedy” (an actual Netflix micro-genre) may be interested in more, so the system recommends others grouped under that genre.

This 2014 article on The Atlantic on how these “micro-genres” work is a must-read for information architects. And if you want explore them yourself — and possibility discover a weird new movie — here’s a complete list of Netflix’s micro-genres.

TAOI: RideMax

The architecture of information:

RideMax is an application designed with a very particular purpose: it allows you to make more efficient use of the stateside Disney theme parks. Specifically, it provides statistical information on then length of lines for individual attractions in Disneyland and Walt Disney World at any given moment in time. This allows you to plan your visit to the parks so that you spend the least amount of time possible in line.

Our species evolved to move around in the world using our senses and our memories. Information environments such as RideMax — and GIS apps like Google Maps and Wayze — change our relationship to the physical environment. They help us make smarter decisions by providing us information that would be impossible for us to gather by ourselves; a sort of global prosthetic nervous system that gives us superpowers.

TAOI: Apple Health

The architecture of information:

It used to be that when I wanted to show people an example of an information environment with a hierarchical taxonomy as its primary structure, I’d show them iTunes. However, iTunes has become a mess of different taxonomies and no longer offers a visible hierarchical navigator by default. These days, when I want to show an example of this type of environment, I point people to another Apple app: Apple Health.

Health comes installed by default in modern iPhones, so many people can access it. Its purpose is to aggregate information from various other health-related apps (such as pedometers, calorie counters, blood glucose monitors, etc.) and present it to the user in a useful way to the user. This requires the presence of two primary structures:

  • A hierarchical taxonomy of all available health-related variables in the system
  • A list of user-curated variables from that taxonomy

The user can navigate the hierarchical taxonomy under the “Health Data” tab. The main view in this tab shows a clear prioritization: it gives four top-level categories (Activity, Mindfulness, Nutrition, and Sleep) much greater visibility than other categories such as Body Measurements, Health Records, and Reproductive Health.

The “Health Data” tab in Apple Health.

The user can tap into any of these categories to view details, including individual variables. A toggle allows the user to select whether or not she wants the variable to appear as part of her “Favorites,” making it part of the curated list that appears in the dashboard view. (Which is called “Today” in the main navigation bar.)

The “Dietary Energy” detail screen. Note the toggle that adds the variable to my favorites.
The “Today” tab in Apple Health. I’ve favorited two variables: Active Energy and Dietary Energy.

The system is not entirely intuitive — it requires some exploration to figure out where some of the key variables live and what they’re called — but it is learnable. Some things you’d expect to be called by one name (such as “calories”) are not selectable as such. This makes sense when you think about it; calories are not an actual variable, but a unit of measure for a variable. So to view how many calories you’ve expended, you must select the “Active Energy” variable, and to see how many calories you’ve ingested, you must select the “Dietary Energy” variable. “Active Energy” and “Dietary Energy” are not obvious terms, but make sense once you’ve figured out how the system works.

Still, Apple Health offers a good modern example of an information environment that invites you to transverse a hierarchical taxonomy. Instead of the plain columns of lists in the iTunes days, Health offers visual elements such as icons and distinct background colors that emphasize relative importance within the environment. It’s also a good example of how to let people navigate a large information structure so they can curate a subset of it for their own needs.