Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

January 24 2014

The lingering seduction of the page

In an earlier post in this series, I examined the articulatory relationship between information architecture and user interface design, and argued that the tools that have emerged for constructing information architectures on the web will only get us so far when it comes to expressing information systems across diverse digital touchpoints. Here, I want to look more closely at these traditional web IA tools in order to tease out two things: (1) ways we might rely on these tools moving forward, and (2) ways we’ll need to expand our approach to IA as we design for the Internet of Things.

First stop: the library

Information Architecture for the World Wide WebInformation Architecture for the World Wide WebThe seminal text for Information Architecture as it is practiced in the design of online information environments is Peter Morville’s and Louis Rosenfeld’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, affectionately known as “The Polar Bear Book.”

First published in 1998, The Polar Bear Book gave a name and a clear, effective methodology to a set of practices many designers and developers working on the web had already begun to encounter. Morville and Rosenfeld are both trained as professional librarians and were able to draw on this time-tested field in order to sort through many of the new information challenges coming out of the rapidly expanding web.

If we look at IA as two faces of the same coin, The Polar Bear Book focuses on the largely top-down “Internet Librarian” side of information design. The other side of the coin approaches the problems posed by data from the bottom up. In Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, David Weinberger argues that the fundamental problem of the “second order” (think “card catalogue”) organization typical of library sciences-informed approaches is that they fail to recognize the key differentiator of digital information: that it can exist in multiple locations at once, without any single location being the “home” position. Weinberger argues that in the “third order” of digital information practices, “understanding is metaknowledge.” For Weinberger, “we understand something when we see how the pieces fit together.”

Successful approaches to organizing electronic data generally make liberal use of both top-down and bottom-up design tactics. Primary navigation (driven by top-down thinking) gives us a birds-eye view of the major categories on a website, allowing us to quickly focus on content related to politics, business, entertainment, technology, etc. The “You May Also Like” and “Related Stories” links come from work in the metadata-driven bottom-up space.

On the web, this textually mediated blend of top-down and bottom-up is usually pretty successful. This is no surprise: the web is, after all, primarily a textual medium. At its core, HTML is a language for marking up text-based documents. It makes them interpretable by machines (browsers) so they can be served up for human consumption. We’ve accommodated images and sounds in this information ecology by marking them up with tags (either by professional indexers or “folksonomically,” by whomever cares to pitch in).

There’s an important point here that often goes without saying: the IA we’ve inherited from the web is textual — it is based on the perception of the world mediated through the technology of writing; herin lies the limitation of the IA we know from the web as we begin to design for the Internet of Things.

Reading brains

We don’t often think of writing as “technology,” but inasmuch as technology constitutes the explicit modification of techniques and practices in order to solve a problem, writing definitely fits the bill. Language centers can be pinpointed in the brain — these are areas programmed into our genes that allow us to generate spoken language — but in order to read and write, our brains must create new connections not accounted for in our genetic makeup.

In Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf describes the physical, neurological difference between a reading and writing brain and a pre-literate linguistic brain. Wolf writes that, with the invention of reading “we rearranged the very organization of our brain.” Whereas we learn to speak by being immersed in language, learning to read and write is a painstaking process of instruction, practice, and feedback. Though the two acts are linked by a common practice of language, writing involves a different cognitive process than speaking. It is one that relies on the technology of the written word. This technology is not transmitted through our genes; it is transmitted through our culture.

It is important to understand that writing is not simply a translation of speech. This distinction matters because it has profound consequences. Wolf writes that “the new circuits and pathways that the brain fashions in order to read become the foundation for being able to think in different, innovative ways.” As the ability to read becomes widespread, this new capacity for thinking differently, too, becomes widespread.

Though writing constitutes a major leap past speech in terms of cognitive process, it shares one very important common trait with spoken language: linearity. Writing, like speech, follows a syntagmatic structure in which meaning is constituted by the flow of elements in order — and in which alternate orders often convey alternate meanings.

When it comes to the design of information environments, this linearity is generally a foregone conclusion, a feature of the cognitive landscape which “goes without saying” and is therefore never called into question. Indeed, when we’re dealing primarily with text or text-based media, there is no need to call it into question.

In the case of embodied experience in physical space, however, we natively bring to bear a perceptual apparatus which goes well beyond the linear confines of written and spoken language. When we evaluate an event in our physical environment — a room, a person, a meaningful glance — we do so with a system of perception orders of magnitude more sophisticated than linear narrative. JJ Gibson describes this as the perceptual awareness resulting from a “flowing array of stimulation.” When we layer on top of that the non-linear nature of dynamic systems, it quickly becomes apparent that despite the immense gains in cognition brought about by the technology of writing, these advances still only partially equip us to adequately navigate immersive, physical connected environments.

The trouble with systems (and why they’re worth it)

Thinking in Systems: A PrimerThinking in Systems: A Primer

Photo: Andy Fitzgerald, of content from Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella Meadows.

I have written elsewhere in more detail about challenges posed to linguistic thinkers by systems. To put all of that in a nutshell, complex systems baffle us because we have a limited capacity to track system-influencing inputs and outputs and system-changing flows. As systems thinking pioneer Donella Meadows characterizes them in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are “inherently unpredictable” and “understandable only in the most general way.”

According to Meadows, we learn to navigate systems by constructing models that approximate a simplified representation of the system’s operation and allow us to navigate it with more or less success. As more and more of our world — our information, our social networks, our devices, and our interactions with all of these — becomes connected, our systems become increasingly difficult (and undesirable) to compartmentalize. They also become less intrinsically reliant on linear textual mediation: our “smart” devices don’t need to translate their messages to each other into English (or French or Japanese) in order to interact.

This is both the great challenge and the great potential of the Internet of Things. We’re beginning to interact with our built information environments not only in a classically signified, textual way, but also in a physical-being-operating-in-the-world kind of way. The text remains — and the need to interact with that textual facet with the tools we’ve honed on the web (i.e. traditional IA) remains. But as the information environments we’re tasked with representing become less textual and more embodied, the tools we use to represent them must likewise evolve beyond our current text-based solutions.

Fumbling toward system literacy

In order to rise to meet this new context, we’re going to need as many semiotic paths as we can find — or create. And in order to do that, we will have to pay close attention to the cognitive support structures that normally “go without saying” in our conceptual models.

This will be hard work. The payoff, however, is potentially revolutionary. The threshold at   which we find ourselves is not merely another incremental step in technological advancement. The immersion in dynamic systems that the connected environment foreshadows holds the potential to re-shape the way we think — the way our brains are “wired” — much as reading and writing did. Though mediated by human-made, culturally transmitted technology (e.g. moveable type, or, in this case, Internet protocols), these changes hold the power to affect our core cognitive process, our very capacity to think.

What this kind of “system literacy” might look like is as puzzling to me now as reading and writing must have appeared to pre-literate societies. The potential of being able to grasp how our world is connected in its entirety — people, social systems, economies, trade, climate, mobility, marginalization — is both mesmerizing and terrifying. Mesmerizing because it seems almost magical; terrifying because it hints at how unsophisticated and parochial our current perspective must look from such a vantage point.

As information architects and interface designers, all of this means that we’re going to have to be nimble and creative in the way we approach design for these environments. We’re going to have to cast out beyond the tools and techniques we’re most comfortable with to find workable solutions to new problems of complexity. We aren’t the only ones working on this, but our role is an important one: engineers and users alike look to us to frame the rhetoric and usability of immersive digital spaces. We’re at a major transition in the way we conceive of putting together information environments. Much like Morville and Rosenfeld in 1998, we’re “to some degree all still making it up as we go along.” I don’t pretend to know what a fully developed information architecture for the Internet of Things might look like, but in the spirit of exploration, I’d like to offer a few pointers that might help nudge us in the right direction — a topic I’ll tackle in my next post.

November 27 2013

The Amazon whisperer, invisible interfaces, FDA vs 23andMe, and robots usher in a new polical order

The Radar team does a lot of sharing in the backchannel. Here’s a look at a selection of stories and innovative people and companies from around the web that have caught our recent attention. Have an interesting tidbit to contribute to the conversation? Send me an email or ping me on Twitter

  • The edges of connected realities — Steve Mason’s TEDxSF talk, in which he discusses the evolution of connected environments and quotes Yves Behar: “The interface of the future is invisible.” (Jenn Webb, via Jim Stogdill, via Rachel Kalmar) Mason’s talk is a must-watch, so I’ll just provide direct access:
  • Why the FDA is targeting Google-backed 23andMe: Unnecessary MRIs, mastectomiesChristina Farr wrote: “One San Francisco-based neurologist, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that some of her healthiest patients — all 23andMe customers — have begun demanding unnecessary and expensive MRI tests for Alzheimer’s disease. ’23andMe’s test is creating chaos with people in their 20s and 30s,’ she said. ‘They generate havoc and walk away.’” (Via Jim Stogdill)
  • A Letter I Will Probably Send to the FDA — From the other side of the FDA vs 23andMe spat, Dr. Scott Alexander wrote: “…23andMe has raised awareness of genetics among the general population and given them questions and concerns, usually appropriate, which they can discuss with their doctor. Their doctor can then follow up on these concerns. Such followup may involve reassurance, confirmation with other genetic testing, confirmation through other diagnostic modalities, or referral to another professional such as a genetic counselor. In my experience personal genomic results do not unilaterally determine a course of treatment, but may influence an ambiguous clinical picture in one direction or the other, or be a useful factor when deciding between otherwise equipotent medications. Banning the entire field of personal genomics in one fell swoop would eliminate a useful diagnostic tool from everyone except a few very wealthy patients.” (Via Mike Loukides)
  • Chaim Pikarski, the Amazon whispererJason Feifer wrote: “[Pikarski] has an entire team of people who read reviews on Amazon, looking for moments when people say, ‘I wish this speaker were rechargeable.’ Pikarski then makes a rechargeable version. … This is the heart of C&A: Each buyer has a specialty — beach products, cellular accessories, and so on. Their job is to scour the web to learn all the features people wish a product had, and hire a manufacturer, often in China, to make the desired version. (Via Tim O’Reilly, via Kevin Slavin)
  • The Robots Are HereTyler Cowen wrote: “The rise of smart machines — technologies that encompass everything from artificial intelligence to industrial robots to the smartphones in our pockets — is changing how we live, work and play. Less acknowledged, perhaps, is what all this technological change portends: nothing short of a new political order. The productivity gains, the medical advances, the workplace reorganizations and the myriad other upheavals that will define the coming automation age will create new economic winners and losers; it will reorient our demographics; and undoubtedly, it will transform what we demand from our government.” (Via Jenn Webb)

Related:

November 03 2013

Podcast: the Internet of Things should work like the Internet

At our OSCON conference this summer, Jon Bruner, Renee DiResta and I sat down with Alasdair Allen, a hardware hacker and O’Reilly author; Josh Marinacci, a researcher with Nokia; and Tony Santos, a user experience designer with Mozilla. Our discussion focused on the future of UI/UX design, from the perils of designing from the top down to declining diversity in washing machines to controlling your car from anywhere in the world.

Here are some highlights from our chat:

  • Alasdair’s Ignite talk on the bad design of UX in the Internet of Things: the more widgets and dials and sliders that you add on are delayed design decisions that you’re putting onto the user. (1:55 mark)
  • Looking at startups working in the Internet of Things, design seems to be “pretty far down on the general level of importance.” Much of the innovation is happening on Kickstarter and is driven by hardware hackers, many of whom don’t have design experience — and products are often designed as an end to themselves, as opposed to parts of a connected ecosystem. “We’re not building an Internet of Things, we’re building a series of islands…we should be looking at systems.” (3:23)
  • Top-down approach in the Internet of Things isn’t going to work — large companies are developing proprietary systems of things designed to lock in users. (6:05)
  • Consumer inconvenience is becoming an issue — “We’re creating an experience where I have to buy seven things to track me…not to mention to track my house….at some point there’s going to be a tipping point where people say, ‘that’s enough!’” (8:30)
  • Anti-overload Internet of Things user experience — mini printers and bicycle barometers. “The Internet of Things has to work like the Internet.” (11:07)
  • Is the Internet of Things following suit with the declining diversity we’ve seen in the PC space? Apple has imposed a design quality onto other company’s laptops…in the same vein, will we see a slowly declining diversity in washing machines, for instance? Or have we wrung out all the mechanical improvements that can possibly be made to a washing machine with current technology, opening the door for innovation through software enhancements? (17:30)
  • Tesla’s cars have a restful API; you can monitor and control the car from anywhere — “You can pop the sunroof while you’re doing 90 mph down the motorway, or worse than that, you can pop someone else’s sunroof.” Security holes are an increasing issue in the industrial Internet. (22:42)
  • “The whole point of the Internet of Things — and technology in general — should be to reduce the amount of friction in our lives.” (26:46)
  • Are we heading toward a world of zero devices, where the objects themselves are the interfaces? For the mainstream, it will depend on design and the speed of maturing technology. (30:53)
  • Sometimes the utility of a thing supersedes the poor user experience to become widely adopted — we’re looking at your history, WiFi. (33:19)
  • The speed of technology turnover is vastly increasing — in a 100 years, platforms and services like Kickstarter will be viewed as major drivers of the second industrial revolution. “We’re really going back to the core of innovation — if you offer up an idea, there will be enough people out there who want that idea to build it and make it, and that will cause someone else to have another idea.” (34:08)

Links related to our discussion:

Subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar Podcast through iTunes, SoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

September 13 2013

Progressive reduction, Bret Victor rants, and Elon Musk is Tony Stark

Investigating emerging UI/UX tech in the design space is leading me to many interesting people, projects and innovative experiments. Here’s a brief selection of highlights I’ve come across in my research. Seen something interesting in UI/UX innovation? Please join the discussion in the comments section or reach out to me via email or on Twitter.

Getting users to interact with products in a particular way is hard. On one hand, you have experienced users who are ready for advanced features and interactions, but at the same time, you have new users who might be put off or confused by too much too soon. Think Interactive’s Alison McKenna took a look at a potential solution: Progressive Reduction — what if designers had a one-size-fits-all solution that allowed an interface to adapt to a user’s level of proficiency? She points to Allan Grinshtein’s seminal article, in which he describes how his company, LayerVault, implements Progressive Reduction and defines the concept: “The idea behind Progressive Reduction is simple: Usability is a moving target. A user’s understanding of your application improves over time and your application’s interface should adapt to your user.”

Maybe the solution is to look outside the user altogether. San Francisco designer Mike Long wants designers to stop designing for “users” and design for activities, rather than individuals:

“Activity-Centered Design (ACD) focuses on the activity context in which individuals interact with your product. Instead of analyzing specific goals and tasks, ACD focuses on the analysis of meaningful, goal-directed actions supported by tools and artifacts in a social world.”

Long outlines how companies or teams can create human activity diagrams to identify a product’s activity context.

Perhaps we haven’t properly designed for the individual in the first place. Bret Victor produced a delicious rant on the “Future Interfaces For The Future” and how they lack vision, i.e. screens under glass, what he dubs “Pictures Under Glass.” Victor encourages designers to ditch the handheld devices that ignore our hands and embrace human capability:

“Hands do two things. They are two utterly amazing things, and you rely on them every moment of the day, and most Future Interaction Concepts completely ignore both of them.

“Hands feel things, and hands manipulate things. … We live in a three-dimensional world. Our hands are designed for moving and rotating objects in three dimensions, for picking up objects and placing them over, under, beside, and inside each other. No creature on earth has a dexterity that compares to ours.”

Victor suggests paying attention next time you make a sandwich — how your fingers and hands manipulate ingredients and utensils — and, comparing that to your experience interacting with Pictures Under Glass, asks: “Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?” Go. Read.

On the academic front, there’s some amazing design research being done at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia — from centers and institutes focusing on collaborative design innovation across disciplines to smart technology solutions to complex questions around the future of cities to health and lifestyle innovation to climate change and sustainability. Fair warning: do not enter if you don’t have time to lose yourself.

And some might have suspected this before, but it turns out Elon Musk is a real-life Tony Stark. John Koetsier reports at VentureBeat that Musk’s SpaceX engineers develop rockets “at least partially with Iron Man-style 3D immersive reality visualizations that designers and engineers can interact with in real time with natural hand gestures.” They then 3D print the designed components. This story came to me via Mac Slocum, who has awesome ideas on adapting the technology for finger-swipe editing and custom fist-pump publishing.

Here’s a video of Musk demonstrating the sensor and visualization design technology that’s “going to revolutionize design and manufacturing in the 21st century”:

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl