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)

TAOI: Better Search and Context in Figma

Meagan Gamache writing in the Figma blog:

With over 50% of Figma users identifying as non-designers, designers have embraced working with collaborators across teams—developers, product managers, researchers, marketers, and beyond. To help these teams make the most of this open environment, we’re making it easier for designers and their stakeholders to find what they’re looking for. We’re also enabling designers to provide context and navigation within their files to help teammates understand their work.


Video: Figma

First, I’m surprised to read that over 50% of Figma-users identify as non-designers. But I shouldn’t be; given its cloud-based collaboration tools, it would make sense if more people sign up to give designers feedback than to do the work themselves.

Second, working collaboratively in a cloud-based tool like Figma can be a productivity boon for teams. Problems with file naming, versioning, syncing, and location (mostly) go away. The downside is that when you have several people working on the same shared project, you can end up with lots of stuff spread out all over the place.

I’ve had trouble finding things in large Figma files in the past — even though I was part of the team that created them. I can imagine how hard it would be for people who are there to give feedback. The new features highlighted in this post sound like good steps towards alleviating these issues.

Look no further: New ways to search and provide context in Figma

TAOI: Grouping Albums in Apple Music

The architecture of information:

A tweet from MacStories founder Federico Viticci highlights a change in Apple Music’s information architecture:

Special editions of albums have been around for a while. It’s not unusual for classic albums to be remixed, or remastered, or get re-released with additional tracks. If you search Apple Music for The Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed, for example, you will find both Let it Bleed and Let it Bleed (50th Anniversary Edition). This change to Apple Music’s architecture links both editions so the user knows that there’s a relationship.

Digital music is a great source of interesting IA examples. Most music in a modern catalog follows a hierarchy that looks something like this: Artist → Album → Song. These objects can also be tagged with several metadata facets, such as genre, year, etc.

What makes it so interesting is that there are lots of exceptions. In classical music, for example, there’s often a distinction between the performer of the piece and its composer. Which one should be considered the “artist”? (If you’re intrigued by this question, listen to my conversation with Thomas Dose on The Informed Life podcast.)

There are also bands with similar names, albums with the same name but recorded by different bands, and the issue highlighted above: the same album but different somehow. Of all these cases, this last one is perhaps the easiest to solve. Still, it’s good to see Apple making the architecture of its music catalog clearer.

Via The Verge

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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TAOI: Incompatible Apps in the Microsoft Store

The architecture of information:

A month ago, Microsoft introduced several new computers to its Surface line. While some of the new devices were incremental advances, one of them — the Surface Pro X — is a modern reinterpretation of the product line. It’s physically sleeker than previous Surface tablets. It features a new stylus that can be stored in the tablet’s keyboard. And, most importantly, it uses a new ARM processor architecture, like the one used by smartphones.

This last point is worth noting. One of the advantages of using Windows tablets over iPads is that the latter lack the breadth of software available for Windows. But in many cases, software “for Windows” really means “for Windows on traditional Intel processors.” Some of the apps that run “on Windows” are incompatible with the new ARM processors in the Surface Pro X tablets, even though they, too, run Windows. In other words, it’s complicated.

In his review of the device for The Verge, Dieter Bohn calls out app compatibility issues as one of the downsides of the new device. The review is worth reading for details into the complexities of this processor transition. The challenges are nuanced: some apps will run slowly, others won’t run at all. One issue stood out to me:
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