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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.

December 13 2013

Architecture, design, and the connected environment

Just when it seems we’re starting to get our heads around the mobile revolution, another design challenge has risen up fiercer and larger right behind it: the Internet of Things. The rise in popularity of “wearables” and the growing activity around NFC and Bluetooth LE technologies are pushing the Internet of Things increasingly closer to the mainstream consumer market. Just as some challenges of mobile computing were pointedly addressed by responsive web design and adaptive content, we must carefully evaluate our approach to integration, implementation, and interface in this emerging context if we hope to see it become an enriching part people’s daily lives (and not just another source of anger and frustration).

It is with this goal in mind that I would like to offer a series of posts as one starting point for a conversation about user interface design, user experience design, and information architecture for connected environments. I’ll begin by discussing the functional relationship between user interface design and information architecture, and by drawing out some implications of this relationship for user experience as a whole.

In follow-up posts, I’ll discuss the library sciences origins of information architecture as it has been traditionally practiced on the web, and situate this practice in the emerging climate of connected environments. Finally, I’ll wrap up the series by discussing the cognitive challenges that connected systems present and propose some specific measures we can take as designers to make these systems more pleasant, more intuitive, and more enriching to use.

Architecture and Design

Technology pioneer Kevin Ashton is widely credited with coining the term “The Internet of Things.” Ashton characterizes the core of the Internet of Things as the “RFID and sensor technology [that] enables computers to observe, identify, and understand the world — without the limitations of human-entered data.”

About the same time that Ashton gave a name to this emerging confluence of technologies, scholar N. Katherine Hayles noted in How We Became Posthuman that “in the future, the scarce commodity will be the human attention span.” In effect, collecting data is a technology problem that can be solved with efficiency and scale; making that mass of data meaningful to human beings (who evolve on a much different timeline) is an entirely different task.

The twist in this story? Both Ashton and Hayles were formulating these ideas circa 1999. Now, 14 years later, the future they identified is at hand. Bandwidth, processor speed, and memory will soon be up to the task of ensuring the technical end of what has already been imagined, and much more. The challenge before us now as designers is in making sure that this future-turned-present world is not only technically possible, but also practically feasible — in a word, we still need to solve the usability problem.

Fortunately, members of the forward guard in emerging technology have already sprung into action and have begun to outline the specific challenges presented by the connected environment. Designer and strategist Scott Jenson has written and spoken at length about the need for open APIs, flexible cloud solutions, and the need for careful attention to the “pain/value“ ratio. Designer and researcher Stephanie Rieger likewise has recently drawn our collective attention to advances in NFC, Android intent sharing, and behavior chaining that all work to tie disparate pieces of technology together.

These challenges, however, lie primarily on the “computer” side of the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) spectrum. As such, they give us only limited insight into how to best accommodate Hayles’ “scarce commodity” – the human attention span. By shifting our point of view from how machines interact with and create information to the way that humans interact with and consume information, we will be better equipped to make the connections necessary to create value for individuals. Understanding the relationship between architecture and design is an important first step in making this shift.

Image by Dan Klyn, used with permission.Image by Dan Klyn, used with permission.

Image by Dan Klyn, used with permission.

Information Architect Dan Klyn explains the difference between architecture and design with a metaphor of tailoring: the architect determines where the cuts should go in the fabric, the designer then brings those pieces together to make the finished product the best it can be, “solving the problems defined in the act of cutting.”

Along the way, the designer may find that some cuts have been misplaced – and should be stitched back together or cut differently from a new piece. Likewise, the architect remains active and engaged in the design phase, making sure each piece fits together in a way that supports the intent of the whole.

The end result – be it a well-fitted pair of skinny jeans or a user interface – is a combination of each of these efforts. As Klyn puts it, the architect specializes in determining what must be built and in determining the overall structure of the finished product; the designer focuses on how to put that product together in a way that is compelling and effective within the constraints of a given context.

Once we make this distinction clear, it becomes equally clear that user interface design is a context-specific articulation of an underlying information architecture. It is this IA foundation that provides the direct connection to how human end users find value in content and functionality. The articulatory relationship between architecture and design creates consistency of experience across diverse platforms and works to communicate the underlying information model we’ve asked users to adopt.

Let’s look at an example. The early Evernote app had a very different look and feel on iOS and Android. On Android, it was a distinctly “Evernote-branded” experience. On iOS, on the other hand, it was designed to look more like a piece of the device operating system.

Evernote_screenshotsEvernote_screenshots

Evernote screenshots, Android (left) versus iOS.

Despite the fact that these apps are aesthetically different, their architectures are consistent across platforms. As a result, even though the controls are presented in different ways, in different places, and at different levels of granularity, moving between the apps is a cognitively seamless experience for users.

In fact, apps that “look” the same across different platforms sometimes end up creating architectural inconsistencies that may ultimately confuse users. This is most easily seen in the case of “ported applications,” where iPhone user interfaces are “ported over” whole cloth to Android devices. The result is usually a jumble of misplaced back buttons and errant tab bars that send mixed messages about the effects of native controls and patterns. This, in turn, sends a mixed message about the information model we have proposed. The link between concept-rooted architecture and context-rooted design has been lost.

In the case of such ports, the full implication of the articulatory relationship between information architecture and user interface becomes clear. In these examples, we can see that information architecture always happens: either it happens by design or it happens by default. As designers, we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that a particular app or website “doesn’t need IA,” but the reality is that information architecture is always present — it’s just that we might have specified it in a page layout instead of a taxonomy tool (and we might not have been paying attention when that happened).

Once we step back from the now familiar user interface design patterns of the last few years and examine the information architecture structures that inform them, we can begin to develop a greater awareness (and control) of how those structures are articulated across devices and contexts. We can also begin to cultivate the conditions necessary for that articulation to happen in terms that make sense to users in the context of new devices and systems, which subsequently increases our ability to capitalize on those devices’ and systems’ unique capabilities.

This basic distinction between architecture and design is not a new idea, but in the context of the Internet of Things, it does present architects and designers with a new set of challenges. In order to get a better sense of what has changed in this new context, it’s worth taking a closer look at how the traditional model of IA for the web works. This is the topic to which I’ll turn in my next post.

April 29 2013

Google Glass and the Future

I just read a Forbes article about Glass, talking about the split between those who are “sure that it is the future of technology, and others who think society will push back against the technology.”

I don’t see this as a dichotomy (and, to be fair, I’m not sure that the author does either). I expect to see both, and I’d like to think a bit more about what these two apparently opposing sides mean.

Push back is inevitable. I hope there’s a significant push back, and that it has some results. Not because I’m a Glass naysayer, but because we, as technology users, are abused so often, and push back so weakly, that it’s not funny. Facebook does something outrageous; a few technorati whine; they add option 1023 to their current highly intertwined 1022 privacy options that have been designed so they can’t be understood or used effectively; and sooner or later, it all dies down. A hundred fifty users have left Facebook, and half a million more have joined. When Apple puts another brick in their walled garden, a few dozen users (myself included) bitch and moan, but does anyone leave? Personally, I’m tired of getting warnings whenever I install software that doesn’t come from the Apple Store (I’ve used the Store exactly twice), and I absolutely expect that a not-too-distant version of OS X users won’t me allow to install software from “untrusted” sources, including software I’ve written. Will there be push back? Probably. Will it be effective? I don’t know; if things go as they are now, I doubt it.

There will be push back against Glass; and that’s a good thing. I think Google, of all the companies out there, is most likely to listen and respond positively. I say that partly because of efforts like the Data Liberation Front, and partly because Eric Schmidt has acknowledged that he finds many aspects of Glass creepy. But going beyond Glass: As a community of users, we need to empower ourselves to push back. We need to be able to push back effectively against Google, but more so against Apple, Facebook, and many other abusers of our data, rather than passively accept the latest intrusion as an inevitability. If Glass does nothing more than teach users that they can push back, and teach large corporations how to respond constructively, it will have accomplished much.

Is Glass the future? Yes; at least, something like Glass is part of the future. As a species, we’re not very good at putting our inventions back into the box. About three years ago, there was a big uptick in interest in augmented reality. You probably remember: Wikitude, Layar, and the rest. You installed those apps on your phone. They’re still there. You never use them (at least, I don’t). The problem with consumer-grade AR up until now has been that it was sort of awkward walking around looking at things through your phone’s screen. (Commercial AR–heads-up displays and the like–is a completely different ball game.) Glass is the first attempt at broadly useful platform for consumer AR; it’s a game changer.

Is it possible that Glass will fail? Sure; I know more failed startups than I can count where the engineers did something really cool, and when they released it, the public said “what is that, and why do you think we’d want it?” Google certainly isn’t immune from that disease, which is endemic to an engineering-driven culture; just think back to Wave. I won’t deny that Google might shelve Glass if they consider unproductive, as they’ve shelved many popular applications. But I believe that Google is playing long-ball here, and thinking far beyond 2014 or 2015. In a conversation about Bitcoin last week, I said that I doubt it will be around in 20 years. But I’m certain we will have some kind of distributed digital currency, and that currency will probably look a lot like Bitcoin. Glass is the same. I have no doubt that something like Glass is part of our future. It’s a first, tentative, and very necessary step into a new generation of user interfaces, a new way of interacting with computing systems and integrating them into our world. We probably won’t wear devices around on our glasses; it may well be surgically implanted. But the future doesn’t happen if you only talk about hypothetical possibilities. Building the future requires concrete innovation, building inconvenient and “creepy” devices that nevertheless point to the next step. And it requires people pushing back against that innovation, to help developers figure out what they really need to build.

Glass will be part of our future, though probably not in its current form. And push back from users will play an essential role in defining the form it will eventually take.

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