Information Architecture

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I haven’t written here in many weeks, but it’s not because I’m not writing.

Lately, though, my thoughts have been too fractured to coalesce into anything that felt like a real blog post. I’m now realizing, however, that they never will unless I unclog the cognitive drain, as it were.

So, this post, in a sense, will be like a visit from Roto-Rooter ™.

- IA tends to be about how users experience information space through time; one space linking to the next, as opposed to how things are arranged and behave on a page or screen. Only way to do this is semantically (language); physical architecture can actually shape space with objects. IA is about the Z axis. I am here, and *THEN* I am here. Links are about time — they shape it, chop it into discrete experiences, even name it.

- Eno’s idea that all culture is a simulacrum, that it’s all invented bits of identity that we can play in, try out. Shopping, movies, fashion, art, music — all of it. (Also love his idea that “culture is everything you don’t have to do.”

- IA provides simulated places, directions to try. Playfulness encompasses this too — moving into, through, past various options — aggregating into something we retroactively experience as a narrative arc. (But that’s constructed by the user … any arc we try to create artificially just gets in the way of this act of meaning-making by the user. We don’t make meaning, we provide spaces for users to do that).

- Will Wright’s phrase: “Possibility Spaces” — great phrase for thinking about IA.

- Whole buildings have been redesigned to change the way people move through them, to get different effects — more conversations, more efficiency, whatever. Virtual spaces have similar effects. What makes MySpace, LinkedIn and Facebook different are just a few basic design choices, mainly around rules & permissions. It’s not their tab-structure that makes them different, it’s the rules — what I’m seeing as the truly architectural aspect of virtual space structures.

- Categories = walls; choosing one semantic structure over another, by default removes all others from play. You can add more, but you can’t add infinitely, or it becomes structureless. Every choice is to promote one thing over all other things (or all other things not also promoted). Just as putting a wall in a building means you can’t walk that way anymore. So categories function just like rules and permissions.

- Rules & permissions, then, are perhaps the bigger entity — and categories are a species of them? Thinking about that… but, at any rate, they’re definitely architectural in nature, and yet we don’t discuss them that much in IA circles. Others are all over it — Clay Shirky, game designers like Will Wright, Craig Newmark, Jimmy Wales, Zuckerberg, others…

- I think it’s IA even if they don’t call it that.

- RS Wurman coined the term IA but it was about representations — maps — that helped us cognitively grok some external reality.

- Then the Web happened, and the map became the landscape — so now IA is about a thing that describes itself (it has to, because on the web, any attempt to effectively map the digital space becomes part of the digital space itself). It’s like one of his ACCESS guides, but one that you literally enter and walk around in — the city and the guide are the same.

- Maybe I love IA for the same reason I loved creating ‘dungeons’ as a kid playing D&D, and later making interactive structures in MUDs and MOOs? Making ‘possibility spaces’ and seeing what design tweaks result in what kinds of experiences?

- Shirky says “there’s no such thing as IA” because, to him, there can be no single authoritative structure anymore — but then points to examples of rules and labels in things like Delicious that, at least in my view, are definitely IA — they’re just not ‘categorization & organization’ IA — they’re the logic of the space that allows people to make sense of and use Delicious. Plus, even if there is no actual IA, it doesn’t mean we don’t experience or perceive it as such. Zen Buddhists say there is no actual “self” but they still name their kids.

- The idea that we organize around objects — network around them — is very powerful. We don’t even see them much of the time, because they’re so taken for granted — we think the relationship exists in and of itself, but it doesn’t. Or rather, it needs a medium to take hold, to instantiate itself — but the relationship likely wouldn’t have begun without that object to begin with. There’s no there there, without the object. (Teaches us something about IA, no? There’s no link without things to link … but those things don’t exist to one another without the link…)

- Conversations are the basis of all of this work, and have always been. Library Science is founded on centuries of Slow Conversations — so slow because they take place in books, over time, using physical spaces and media. One book or article answers another. It was the only way for people divided by space (and time) to have these conversations — later broadcasting, but that too took a lot of time and material for production. Think of it as a very slow chemical reaction — something that takes many years, like fine wines or something?

- The internet has essentially sped up that chemical reaction, put a burner under the test-tube, and made it so that the previous containers & processes are breaking down somewhat. Conversing, organizing, collaborating — all can take place with almost zero inertia. A sort of Cambrian Explosion.

Ok… that’ll do for now. There’s more in my notes, but this is getting to be crazy long.

Facebook Dystopia

I’m sick of Facebook. The noise and annoyance, the confusing permissions, the beta-intrusions into privacy and the rest are bad enough.

But what really chafes me about it is the Facebook Apps framework. I’m in full agreement with this post about Facebook, except that I’m not going to blame the developers that much.

The developers of FB apps are just doing what developers are going to do when given a system that doesn’t encourage better behavior. Facebook could’ve made the framework much more responsible, so that it enforced some good-neighbor rules. A few tweaks that could’ve made all the difference.

What angers me most about it aren’t persnickety user-experience complaints, but the fact that it’s fouling up the ability to communicate and “play” with friends and colleagues, it’s crossing signals and screwing with expectations. I don’t know if I’m offending someone by declining to play a game with them, because I don’t know if the app tricked the user into accidentally inviting a hundred people to use the app and I’m just one more. I don’t know if I want to use an app or not because so many are so poorly designed, and the system gives me no way to know what users are saying about the app.

Unlike Linked-In, FB cheapens the ties that it helps me make socially, by allowing philistines to use them for these viral shenanigans. They drummed up the hype, led people to believe they’d be millionaires if they just got enough people to sign up for an app, and essentially got out of the way of the stampede.

Joi Ito, back in March, posted from the Game Developers Conference, where he is going to be doing a talk on the topic of “More than MMOs: Let Them Build It. How user-created content has transformed online games into a new web platform.” (Wish I could hear that talk! It’s one of my favorite things-to-obsess-upon, as evidenced in my article for ASIST Bulletin last year.)

Joi arrives at the conference assuming it’ll be attended by people like him — old-school hacker types who cut their teeth on early game code and the community of coding — and finds it’s mostly old-school entertainment-business types who simply don’t get it.

… while there are certain companies and individuals who are bridging the gap between the gaming industry and the Internet, the gaming industry is making the same mistakes that the content guys have been making since the beginning of networked computers. They ALWAYS over-estimate the importance of the content and vastly underestimate the desire of users/people to communicate with each other and share. … The professional content is important and will never go away, but it is becoming more of a platform or substrate on which the users build their own communities, interaction and play.

I wonder if it has something to do with the illusion of control, that as a producer of content one has the power to direct others’ attention, to provide meaning? It’s very hard to make the shift (or leap) from the image of oneself as central to peripheral. It makes the re-framing that everyone’s experiencing around “Web 2.0″ feel downright Copernican.

SL redux poster

The lovely people of the IAI have arranged for me to give an abbreviated, Second-Life-friendly version of my presentation tomorrow at 3pm Linden Time (i.e. the time in Second Life), or 6pm Eastern US.

It’s abbreviated by necessity — the presentation has many many slides normally, that I go through quickly, but in Second Life the render times are longer. So no fancy builds and transitions, and fewer images overall. But it’ll be an interesting experiment.

I appreciate the IAI folks’ patience with my anxious dithering on this whole thing!

If you get to see it in Second Life, but then want to check out the full presentation, you can read the notes and see all the slides at SlideShare.

UX Week 2007

UPDATE: See this one on SlideShare. You need to see it full-screen to read the notes.

This is my official plug for the Adaptive Path UX Week in Washington, DC, August 13-17.

I’ll be speaking on Monday, on User Experience Design as set of Communities of Practice. Basically, an abbreviated and somewhat tweaked version of what I presented at the IA Summit this year.

Hey, DC in August! I hear the hotel has excellent air conditioning :-)

Via Jay Fienberg, via the IAI discussion list, I hear of this excellent post by professor David Silver about a talk Silver did recently on the Web 2.0 meme.

Silver starts out lauding the amazing, communal experience of blogs and mashups of blogs and RSS feeds and other Web 2.0 goodness, and then gets into giving some needed perspective:

then i stepped back and got critical. first, i identified web 2.0 as a marketing meme, one intended to increase hype of and investment in the web (and web consultants) and hinted at its largely consumer rather than communal directions and applications. second, i warned against the presentism implied in web 2.0. today’s web may indeed be more participatory but it is also an outgrowth of past developments like firefly, amazon’s user book reviews, craigslist, and ebay – not to mention older user generated content applications like usenet, listservs, and MUDs. third, i argued against the medium-centricness of the term web 2.0. user generated content can and does exist in other media, of course, including newspapers’ letters to the editor section, talk radio, and viewers voting on reality tv shows. and i ended with my all-time favorite example of user generated content, the suggestion box, which uses slips of paper, pencils, and a box.

I think this is very true, and good stuff to hear. (Even in the peculiar lower-case typing…fun!) Group participation has been growing steadily on the Internet in one form or another for years.

I do think, though, that some tipping point hit in the last few years. Tools for personal expression, simple syndication, a cultural shift in what people expect to be able to do online, and the rise of broadband and mobile web access — the sum has become somehow much greater than its parts.

Still, I think he’s right that the buzzword “Web 2.0″ is mainly an excellent vehicle for hype that gets people thinking they need consultants and new books. (Tim O’Reilly is a nice guy, I’m sure, but he’s also a business man and publisher who knows how to get conversations started.)

Silver mentions Feevy, a sort of ‘live blogroll’ tool for blogs — it has an excerpt of the latest post by each person on your blogroll. Neato tool. I may have to try it out!

Danah Boyd is pondering some of the rich, loamy stuff she’s uncovering in her long ethnographic study of young people and social networks.

She’s finding signs that there’s a growing social class/standing divide between Facebook and MySpace among high-school-age kids, and she’s wrestling with precisely what that means.

Thankfully, before waiting until it’s all been strained of all personality and doubt and pinned to wax as an official “paper,” she’s putting her neck out there and sharing some of the ideas she’s struggling with. You know, starting conversations, asking for feedback.

Of course, lots of people don’t get it. The BBC posted a story about it as if it were a University-vetted “study” — and it’s getting slashdotted and everything, which is bringing tons of people to the blog/essay who don’t understand ethnographic methods, or her approach to social sharing.

But, all that aside, it’s a fascinating post in itself.

The “blog essay” itself is on her site at danah.org. And the regular blog post where she explains it and is collecting comments from the public is on her blog at zephoria.org.

It’s especially interesting to read through these comments. Of course, as I said, lots of people seem uncomfortable with qualitative, raw, conversational research-analysis-in-formation. There are also some who, in their snooty disdain for MySpace and what they see there, unwittingly prove Boyd’s point to a degree.

What a lot of commenters bring up is that there are important differences between these two social engines that may cause some of the results Boyd is seeing. For example, while MySpace allows a user to create an anonymous account and connect to anyone they want, Facebook requires you to be “yourself” on the site, and allows connections only through referrals or pre-existing offline relation (such as being from the same school).
here are other, more subtle rules-based structural differences discussed throughout.

To me, this is central to what information architecture (at least as I see it) is all about: creating structures (whether categories of content or logical rules for what can and can’t be done and how) to channel people in particular ways.

I mean not so much the tabs/categories/taxonomy but the rules-based structures: who can friend whom; whether or not you can use a pseudonym; what channels can be used to form networks; how much you can customize your personal page, etc.

I wonder why these kinds of design decisions don’t get talked about more among IAs? Though to be fair, it’s on the rise. There were some great sessions about it at the last summit.

I can’t help but have a strong gut feeling, though, that the IA of “categorization and organization” of static structures is going to pale in comparison in terms of importance and impact next to the design decisions behind rules-based structures such as this.

My obsession with what I call the “game layer” aside, it’s interesting that the mainstream press are now reporting on how using “game mechanics” in business software can create more engaging & useful ways of working with data, collaborating, and getting work done.

Why Work Is Looking More Like a Video Game – New York Times

Rave adapts a variety of gaming techniques. For instance, you can build a dossier of your clients and sales prospects that includes photographs and lists of their likes, dislikes and buying interests, much like the character descriptions in many video games. Prospects are given ratings, not by how new they are — common in C.R.M. programs — but by how likely they are to buy something. All prospects are also tracked on a timeline, another gamelike feature.

(Thanks, Casey, for the link!)

Wow! Evidently Architectures of Conversation is (at the moment of this posting) is SlideShare’s 17th Most Favorited this month.

Yes… 17th… it’s a nice, prime number.

I just want to thank the little people. And point out that it took the Web to turn “Favorite” into a verb.

Austin Govella puts a question to me in his post here: Does Comcast have the DNA to compete in a 2.0 world? at Thinking and Making

Context of the post: Austin is wondering about this story from WSJ, “Cable Giant Comcast Tries to Channel Web TV” — specifically Jeremy Allaire’s comments doubting Comcast’s ability to compete in a “Web 2.0″ environment.

At the end of his post, Austin says:

And the more important question, for every organization, how do you best change your DNA to adapt to new ages? Is it as simple as adjusting your organization’s architecture to enable more participation from good DNA? What happens if your internal conversations propagate bad DNA?
This is my question for Andrew: how do you architect community spaces to engender good DNA and fight infections of bad DNA?

My answer: I don’t know. I think this is something everybody is trying to figure out at once. It’s why Clay Shirky is obsessing over it. It’s why Tim O’Reilly and others are talking about Codes of Conduct.

So, when it comes to specifics, I don’t know that we have a lot of templates that we can say work most of the time… it’s so dependent on the kind of community, culture, etc.

However, in general, I think moderation tools that allow the organism to tend to itself are the best way to go. By that I mean “karma” functions that allow users to rate, comment, and police one another to a degree.

That, plus giving users the opportunity to create rich profiles that they come to identify with. Any geeks out there like me know what it’s like to create a quickie D&D character just to play with for the day — you can do whatever you want with it and it doesn’t matter. But one that you’ve invested time in, and developed over many sessions of gaming, is much more important to you. I think people invest themselves in their online ‘avatars’ (if you consider, for example, a MySpace profile to be an avatar — I do), and they’re generally careful about them, if they can be tied to the identity in a real way (i.e. it isn’t just an anonymous ‘alt’).

In short, a few simple rules can create the right structure for healthy complexity.

As for Comcast, I suspect that the company’s image is generally perceived to be a lumbering last-century-media leviathan. So it’s easy for people like Allaire to make these assumptions. I think I might have made similar assumptions, if I didn’t personally know some of the talented people who work at Comcast now!

What Allaire doesn’t come right out and say (maybe he doesn’t understand it?) is that the Web 2.0 video space isn’t so much about delivering video as about providing the social platform for people to engage one another around the content. Like Cory Doctorow said (and yes, I’m quoting it for like the 100th time), content isn’t king, “conversation is king; content is just something to talk about.”

Having the content isn’t good enough. Having the pipes and the captive audience isn’t good enough either. From what I’ve seen, of Ziddio and the like, Comcast is aware of this.

But it’s weird that the story in WSJ only mentions the social web as a kind of afterthought: “Competitors also are adding social networking and other features to their sites to distinguish them from traditional television.” As if social networking is just an added feature, like cup holders in cars. Obviously, WSJ isn’t quite clued in to where the generative power of Web 2.0 really lives. Maybe it’s because they’re stuck in an old-media mindset? Talk about DNA!

Boing Boing has a lovely paean saying Happy birthday, Carl Linnaeus, to the one responsible for bringing a common vocabulary (and, maybe most importantly, a system of naming) to natural science — one of the cornerstones that has helped human beings (*ahem* … “homo sapiens”) to share and codify scientific learning.

He’s, of course, a kind of patron saint of Information Architecture, where we’re all about classifying and organizing things.

But, alas, even Linneas’ dream of pristinely organized information is suffering from the realities of the post-modern world. From the Boing Boing post:

But how much longer will the Linnaean system last? Recently it has come under attack from some taxonomists who believe its structure is too inflexible to cope with the explosion of knowledge unleashed by DNA analysis. Today’s young Turks of taxonomy want to abolish the strict ranked hierarchy of family, order, class, etc. In its place they advocate “clades,” groupings that are based on genetic relationships and can be expanded, contracted or redefined as new kinships are discovered. For now, the traditionalists outnumber the iconoclasts, and Linnaean-style classification remains the gold standard.

Fascinating, that even in the seminal uber-taxonomy, there’s a kind of “tagging relativism” going on…

Maybe they need a pattern language?

This is the ‘final’ version of the Architectures for Conversation talk. Hence the (ii) appended to the title.

The presentation isn’t very useful without the notes, and unfortunately at this size the notes aren’t terribly legible. So I recommend viewing it full-screen, or downloading the PDF from Slideshare.

This was a version that I presented at Philly CHI (Philadelphia chapter of the Computer-Human Interaction special interest group of ACM), at the U. Penn campus.

Most of it is the same thing I did at the IA Summit in Vegas a month ago, but there are some new slides and some more content, especially about how User-Experience Communities of Practice fit together, and what I mean by “Infospace.”

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