whereupon I use words like pivot to articulate the transition from steady as we went to fucking hell what’s going on at this place there’s 17 people in this room I’ve never met before and you know they’re amazing people but how do they know what we do and how did they get here and who knows what on earth is happening these days it used to be so simple we just dropped a couple of resumes around on email and a couple of nods and winks later employee number 34 was up and running and it was like nobody really had anything to do with getting that person in the building they were just there one day and started being perfectly brilliant at what they do and carry on but it’s apparent it doesn’t quite work like that when you’re looking for employee number 213-225 and that’s just this week and wait a minute I’m supposed to be making things not running things.
if the ethos is the craft then the antithesos is the scale and everything heads binwards as creative entropy does some kind cataclysmic crisis acceleration and rather the like relentless pumping of custard into a cheap balloon things don’t so much fall apart as they go on they explode in faces of barely conscious long service award-winners as if to remind them that it’s all their fault that they were so focused on making thing they didn’t even notice they were somehow supposed to be also MAKING THINGS HAPPEN like it doesn’t just run itself you know it’s just fine that you’re busy over there prolapsing over an outcome in the name of CRAFT but for forgot to build a RAFT and I don’t mean like some team-building activity but ironically I mean like some team-building activity but the kind where you build TEAMS and not a fucking RAFT with spaghetti and masking tape as a facilitator called Katie makes sympathetic noises while all you really want to do is break a bit early and go to that mcdonalds on islingtom high street before you get the train back to stratford to tell your partner you built a fucking RAFT when you could be doing CRAFT and they’ll tell you you can’t do it all on your own love you need to take operational control and invest the right people with the decision-making capabilities to enable the studio to grow sustainably and take the logistical overhead away from practitioners and coordinate a measurable roadmap for sustainability that enables you retain the essence of the practice without burning you out love trying to do the CRAFT and RAFT at the same time I mean it will take a bit of change management and some people won’t like it but it’s really the only way and by the way dinner’s ready did you get the paprika no I didn’t I’ve been trying to screen resumes all day ah well there you go that’s exactly what I’m saying love.
we seek to make sense. we want to understand the structure of everything.
to deconstruct is to reconstruct. one creates the now in the reinvention of the was. so we intentionally destabilise and disrupt to explore the meaning of reality and question the order of the universe. because without question, we can’t and shouldn’t believe the reality we inhabit and experience. we’re driven, hopelessly and unapologetically to invent our own realities in order to give structure and meaning to the place we find ourselves, in terms we can own, reference and communicate. for within those realities, we define the context within which things exist. we determine viability of domains, entities, objects. we describe relationships, dependencies and maps. we define rules, hierarchies and constructs. we decide what makes sense, because we create the meaning through structures that we can confidently articulate. we become the arbiters of sense-making. and we determine outcomes through the definition of experiences. because ultimately, we’re deciding for others how the universe is arranged to provide the context within which others experience an experience. and in the decisions we make about the structures we define to make sense and provide meaning we pretend that we transcend the personal politic, but we can’t help but hope to reflect the beauty and artistry of everything in the universe as we know it, and create structure as a manifestation of all that we aspire to, to know what it is to be who we are.
and maybe a site map.
I’m an information architect. I choose to be that because of all the things I need to make sense of. my need is part visionary, part vocational. but mostly it’s because I have to make sense of things in relation to other things and describe meaning to others. I need to express what I mean in order to communicate what I think I need to do. I inhabit the dark, lonely places between discovery and definition. between understanding and articulating. between insight and design. I dig my nails into my palms, close my eyes and try not to repeat history. try to find something new.
I start with a blank canvas and a whole universe of information. which is, in reality, a piece of A4, a pentel r50 and a state of mind. paper and pen are my constraints in the physical world. context is my constraint in the metaphysical world. budgets are my constraint in the business world. and as these worlds collide I scratch meaning onto the whiteness of the page in two dimensions. boxes and arrows. unintelligible labels. epiphanies. entire back catalogues of things. enter shikari lyrics. dots. the universe. the most basic rendition of meaning that can be distilled from the constellations of all experiences that guide me. an exploration of space and time, the history of all existences, the subconscious self, why my pen has stopped working, investment products, life. but all I’m doing is reconstructing all that has been deconstructed. sometimes it’s useless. sometimes it’s Ulysses. beautiful, unique and impossible to deconstruct again. it only makes sense when experienced. but the relentless, maniacal pursuit of structure is, in of itself, the definition of the universe within with meaning can be derived by others.
consideration of the structure of everything could be described as the search for a framework for the the human condition. it could also be defined as making sense of every mess. it’s often just information dogmatecture. a way to establish credentials for thought leadership and a reason to use praxis and periphery in conference submissions. but it’s innate. when we consider the parts of information architecture we can’t help but consider the sums of the parts of information architecture. and because the universe is a perplexing subconscious constant, it influences every decision we make about how to describe who we are and how we are. we use that which is infinitely unstructured to frame our conversation about that which is uniquely structured.
which is why the structure of everything drifts further away from us as the boundaries of the information space expand. it’s information architecture redshift.
I’ve been trying to work things out. one of the things I’ve been trying to work out is the relationship between context, query and linked data. I’m too lazy to need to work this out as an academic exercise, it’s in reference to a real thing I needed to figure out for a real experience design challenge and a real person paying me to work things out. so it’s professional working things out as far as I’m professional at anything but since I was being paid to think it was appropriate to at least try and work it out. but of course being paid to work things out is just a catalyst for working things out for yourself. that point in time where you’ve transitioned from a principal designer realising you should have probably thought of something by now to just a human with a brain in a room making sense of things through the application of everything you have known do know and potentially will know through the lens of what’s possible via the channel of what’s achievable within the constraints of what’s viable and with the mighty pen of articulation lofted like excalibur above the white field of parchment upon which the most grand of proclamations will surely be wrote that as such will usher a period of enlightment that in years to come will be held in reverance as the epoch that we now breathe of softly and romantically as that time I tried to work something out and drew a box and then got really tired and made myself a cup of tea.
the thing to work out was based on a principal that an actor may determine and navigate their own flow through a system and that the system creates pathways to support free wandering just always one step ahead, signposting just enough desire path to enable discovery without direction but, like, you have to end up buying something of course. imagine a funnel with an infinte in and a tiny out, like the angle of funnel is like 0º or something but you incrementally adjust the angle of intent, the trajectory of flow, the acquisition of yes, at each moment of magic along the path. in the end, the flow through the system is determined by the human actor, but system has created the most desired path of all possible paths and omg fancy that you ended up at a destination that just happened to be a little bit like the place we might have wanted you to to end up in the first place. it’s magic. in the I know what happens at the end but I’m going to make you feel like it’s an entirely free choice magic. but you know, we’re all happy.
but this magic requires a system of things that do not exist and are not arranged. it does not require the things that might exist already, like, well, pages. or maps. it requires the design and definition of things that do not exist or are not known because, if this vision is to realised in it’s truest form, they can only be known at the point in time and in the context they’re required where the intent for them has been described. if we are to avoid prescription but support free roam, we have to create the universe where the arrangement of things and the relationships between them can be determined in the moment. a completely transient information architecture that only provides meaning at the point of asking. magic.
not going to happen. but there might be a way to work with the known things and the objects and attributes that exist to create a kind of partially free roaming experience. a bit like being let loose in a field that’s actually got an electrified wireframe all the way around it and you can’t help noticing the paths that have already been taken but because it’s all a bit peripheral you just focus on the horizon and make some kind of decisions or other because after all you’re in the field in the first place because somebody told you that in this field you might find the holy grail under a dead cat and so you’re already kind of looking for it. because you fancy a holy grail. not sure why you want one, but whatever, you’re here now.
the only way this might work is if you have all that data you have described in way that all the other data you have kind of knows what that data is and what it might be useful for. your data needs be defined in a way that if you ask it what kind of data it is at least it knows the attributes of itself such that it can tell you something about itself. and that something has to be defined in a way that all known data recognises that a. it is data and b. it has attributes. you have to architect the data. but as we know, architecting anything is to define it in terms of the interactions with the architected and so to be truly agnostic of meaning the data needs to be arranged in a way that it becomes information, that is it only exists as objects that become meaningful when the relationships between themselves and other objects are defined. it’s the links between the data that turn data into information. loosely connected as you like, but connected, as creating meaning in the linking of data is where the dna-like helixes of experience begin to spiral and conjoin, creating soups of existence where breed the primordial life-forms of meaning that ultimately evolve and slither out of the soup like the earliest complex bodies that actually look a bit like worms but eventually turn into humans and duh they sit in the dark with white wine trying to work out the meaning of context, query and linked data although maybe all we’re talking about here is the linking of two bits of data that describe the lowest common denominator of the pricing model of a financial services product but when you define a relationship between those two bits of data you can derive a meaning that enables you to at least consider the concept of a more meaningful construct that somehow enables someone to make sense of the data as information in order to derive their own meaning and consider a course of action although even as I’m writing this I’m still on the worms thing and wondering if there was something more in that but in the end there is data and that data has attributes and if those attributes enable us to create relationships we’re onto something even though even I’m not sure what that is and a few minutes ago I had it all worked out in my head but got stuck on worms.
but the thing that matters is that the data only becomes information when you ask it to arrange itself. and the way you ask it to arrange itself is by compiling a query that determines the data that is to be arranged and a context within which the arrangement makes sense. and these things don’t come out of the soup. they come out of a brain. they’re modelled and defined in relation to outcomes which is to say even though our aspiration is to build an open environment within which outcomes are determined by the actors within that environment we probably can’t help leaving trails of crumbs around to ensure the actors don’t fall of the stage so really we end up defing the initial context and query so that the actors are even on the stage in the first place.
so the definition of context and query are what gives data meaning through requiring the data to link itself in relation to the query such that it becomes information that in the current context is a response to an action triggered by an intent that was to fetch the next set of data based on the query in the context within which the action was triggered. I think. not really sure. I’m just trying to work it out.
if I’m honest it’s because I can’t be arsed with the pause and reconsideration that accompanies every utterance of a title that’s prescriptive and divisive notwithstanding the gravitas and apparent stakeholder appeasmentism that the very combination of words appear to solicit albeit with the delivery of a stifled yawn from the wrong side of a curtain twitching like the very drawing of morning across the pale insipid sky of delusion that speaks of much grandeur and most excellent credentials while all the time saying not so much as a pithy whine unto the duck void of experience whereupon the weight of expectation times the burden of truth equals the reality of a glass never actually filled at all.
it doesn’t matter. it never really has. at least not to me. but oh how the machine readers of the mind have been wired to construct the meaning and motive from the syntax and the semantics of the short sweet evolution of the industry we call home. all operators are overloaded. all exceptions have been thrown. all we have that has been taken from us is in the irony that the definition of self now belongs so very much to others.
I am a user experience designer and I done a wireframe.
here is a revelation for anyone who has never been to a conference that’s relevant to their profession: it’s a great way to validate that you actually know what you’re talking about. I mean, honestly, we mostly operate within the duck quack void of self-appreciation and we’re only really interrogated and challenged when we’re required to present, with authority, our opinion on what our interpretation of ‘good’ is in the narrow context of our own practice. but spending a day or two listening to people just like you, presenting their own ideas, propositions and theories, is a day or two where you quickly come to the realisation that you’re not, in fact, the imposter you thought you might be. you’re actually reasonably good. fuck it. you’re very good.
a colleague of mine is out in san francisco this week, at a conference where there are some very clever, very smart people talking about design practice. I say they’re very clever and very smart, but really, I’ve no idea. at least I’ve heard of them. they’ve mostly written a book about something or other that’s relevant. but, you know, I’ve never worked with them, so I can’t personally say whether they’re any good at what they do. but they tell a good story. and that’s what we’ve got to go on. and this colleague reflected on her first day at the conference with a telling phrase: I am getting the feeling we actually are doing stuff so right! and she means that as a company and as the individuals that make that company what it is. and I’m not surprised. because that’s the feeling I get when I attend similar events.
when you find yourself in a safe environment, and there’s not much safer than conferences, especially those with a significant proportion of first-time speakers, then that’s when you give yourself permission to evaluate your own position. my first speaking engagement was at the IA summit. I’d never done any public speaking before, least of all about my own practice. but that environment was as perfect a place as any to evaluate, compare, contrast and make your own conclusions about how you’re placed on the weird global/parochial peer spectrum. and really, it’s not a question of relativity. it’s much more about reassurance and a sense of acknowledgement.
which is all a rather roundabout way of saying that there is much to be gained from attending a conference of like-minded individuals to understand your own position within that community. I advocate conference attendance as a learning experience. bluntly put, I recommend conference attendance as the place where training budget is invested, because I believe that proactive conference attendance adds value as a career development opportunity by a factor of at least ten over traditional training or courseware. it’s definitely where I spend all my training budget. and if that runs out, especially where the IA summit is concerned, I’ll pay for it myself. it’s a no-brainer.
on the discovery and deliberation of patterns it is a better thing we do to deny our learning and reference the landscape that we surface for whereupon some fresh faces are removed from their host and commune upon the meaning and principle of the very elements that evoke the things which we’re bound to call engagement emotion experience and delight then our challenge must be to question the very semantics of our endeavour for when we distribute this cognitive load and balance expectations most notably on the axis of strategic and attainable then there will be a mountain of prejudice and presumption that once manifest and articulated may only result in an irresistible deference to an equilibrium that defines the problem for as much as we coalesce around the principles and we refine refine reiterate and replay we ultimately provide our own context and that is where we imagine those patterns as extensions of the understanding we currently have rather than an understanding of what can be we may at times realise such distances from our everyday that we are able to explore without constraint and within that we can begin to discover those patterns that behaviourally would seem to get us closer to some kind of new resolution then within those arbitrary boundaries we’re going to realise our own conditions and parameters and they will determine the measure of success against which our interactions and behaviours can be evaluated making the estimation in those terms enables those participants and practitioners to filter around a common axis with a predictable set of data without this earthing there can be no parity and without this parity we’re divergent at best and tangental at least if we can begin to recognise what common language enables us to articulate then the patterns begin to emerge
when we were trying to find a suit for my dad when my sister got married, there wasn’t much of a plan. I mean, there wasn’t a particular style or look we were going for. we didn’t really have a great understanding of what might be the right thing, other than it should probably be a bit, like, summery. but beyond that, we were at a bit of a loss. so we thought we should consult the expert in these matters. a tailor.
having explained to the best of our ability exactly how we thought my dad’s suit should manifest, having stumbled over at least half an oxford english dictionary and a couple of rogets, we alighted on a deafening silence, accompanied by an awkward gawping stare, waiting, almost reverently, for said tailor to deliver a verdict. and when he spake it felt as like it were the very voice of heaven cascading over our heavy shoulders. and he did spake unto us thus: “you need something a little…” yes? “…a little…” go on? “well…”
“let me show you”
actually, it was the perfect description of what was required. I can’t really describe to you how the suit looked, but I think you can get an idea from that single word. but it isn’t the word that made the difference. it was the acknowledgement that specificity in of itself wasn’t the thing that was providing any clarity. it was using the right language based on the context that made the difference. and he just made that word up. but it was exactly the right word at the right time, based on the information he had.
I am the least academic person I know. I’m a terrible intellectual and appallingly unintelligent. do I know tufte? no I don’t know tufte. have I been getting away with it as a user experience designer for ten years? maybe. but you can’t personally say that unless you’ve worked with me and I’ve disabled comments for anybody who has worked with me.
I’ve done good things though. I have apparently made clients happy. I haven’t changed the world. I haven’t set out to. but to the best of my abilities I design for the user based on the evidence I have. much like the tailor. I really don’t know whether I’m using a taxonomy, an information architecture, a flow diagram, a blueprint, a journey map, a haynes manual, a cognitive disentropy matrix or whatever. I could really not care what those things are and the limits or constraints of what they’re supposed to communicate.
but I’m good at finding the word. and if I can sit in a room, with a pen and something to use it on, then I can probably show you what I mean. and that’s about as specific as it gets.
I was speaking with Andrew the other day about the transition from in-house to agency and how that adjustment takes place after a number of years at the former. because a number of years at the former has a particular pace and a particular comfort in the ownership and management of the design you do and the thinking you think and the constraints you know and the collaboration you undertake and the scrutiny under which you find yourself and the measurement of success that you might be subjected to which is likely measured over a period not much less than a decent-sized freelance contract against a set of goals and objectives mapped out over a period not much less the bronze age.
if you have spent a meaningful amount of time as a resident designer on the client side, either as a larger team, or, worse still, as the design team of one, you’ve likely woken up at your desk one day and realised you can probably go back to sleep for a while and nobody will notice until the end of the quarter. a massive generalisation of course, and more likely just an accurate description of my 14 years in-house, but the point is that the pace and scrutiny is different. and it can be a safe place. and you can get away with it. and you can sometimes disappear completely.
once you make the change, however, you can suddenly find yourself very exposed. I thought it was perfectly acceptable to take 6 months to design a faceted navigation system for a line of hardware. and, you know, it kind of was. but as soon as you get started on your first proper design project agency side, you are immediately aware that there is something different. people want to know what you’re doing all the time. they want to know why. they want you to explain to them the things they don’t understand and tell you why those things you suddenly can’t articulate aren’t actually that good anyway. they want to question everything you do. and, by the way, that 6 months? that’s actually 6 days here. if there’s one thing that really hits home in your first 3 months of transition, it’s the change in pace. and it’s not that the change in pace is a bad thing. it’s just that it feels like you don’t have enough time to think. which means you don’t have enough time to design. which is stressful and surprising and difficult and awkward. because you might not actually be able to do it. you might fail. and everyone will be able to say they told you so. and you’ll be exposed.
if I’m honest, it took about a year to get used to the change in pace, which I’m sure will be validated by the account teams who’s budget I used to work that out. I’m pretty efficient now. and that doesn’t mean I’m by any means a worse designer for being a more efficient designer. it just means I’m a bit quicker. if anything, I believe it makes me a better designer, since I’ve worked on the skill that is understanding and articulating the very thing in a given design challenge that is where the opportunity lies. and I can do that very quickly. and I can do it for multiple design challenges. and I can move from studio to studio, whiteboard to whiteboard, desk to desk, and I can point to the thing that matters. it’s an acquired skill. it takes time to learn. but the efficiency in the clarity is what facilitates pace.
the less tangible form of exposure comes when you are suddenly placed under an intense level of interrogation regarding the very thing that you think makes you a designer in the first place. your design thinking. or whatever you want to call it. that process you go through when you think about stuff. and write down words. and draw boxes. or abstract categorisations of emotions. maybe you use different colour pens. maybe you cut bits of paper out and rearrange them in a way that you think is the responsive version of the jean genie. whatever you do to evolve insight into articulation. evidence to ideas. you know, DOING DESIGN THINGS. for that is the place where you’ve likely never really had to justify yourself to other people who might actually be designers too who might even be better designers who might even be honest designers who might actually tell you what they think. because when design is money, clarity is currency. you really need to be able to explain yourself. be under no illusion, when you work for an agency, your constraint is time. but your reputation is all about quality. so quality is, and should be, ruthlessly monitored, evaluated, and understood. and that’s why the integrity of design and design thinking is the first thing that you will get caught out on. well, apart from the pace thing. but it’s not personal. even though that’s what it feels like the first few times someone like me sits down with you, looks at your designs and pulls that horrible squinty patronising-but-really-caring face that tells you there’s something not quite right. but I do that because, actually, there’s something not quite right. I’ve exposed you. how you then deal with that is that up to you. if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably print out pictures of me and stick them to your bedroom door whereupon you’ll spend a full 3 nights throwing manically sharpened pencils at them sobbing in your underpants slowly mouthing “I can design. I’m a good designer. I can design. I’m a good designer. I can design. I’m a good designer” over and over and over until you’re all cried out and you collapse on the floor onto a pile of ripped up creative reviews as the queen is dead plays on repeat over the wail of sirens and the incessant banging on the door.
you get over it. it’s all part of the transition. welcome to the real world.
but it’s true, if that person is saying it, then omg omg omg you probably really should know it so you can at least acknowledge it and talk about it and update your slides to reference it and then explain how you’ve always been doing it but actually when you were doing it before people had a name for it it was just something you did as part of what everybody now calls holistic interaction experiential lean mapping or something omg omg omg I don’t even believe anything I say any more I’m a terrible imposter and I’m going to be found out why do I bother clearly I should just go back to compulsively rearranging the bookshelf in my bedroom I hate myself and want to die in a professionally self destructive kind of way.
but it’s alright. you probably don’t need to know.
but it’s true, if everybody you follow on twitter is making reference to it, then omg it’s even worse and now they’re all actually making it more obscure by making oblique references to some historical precedence which is clearly the foundation for the thing this person is talking about but omg omg since this is like THE CORE PRINCIPLE AND I DON’T EVEN KNOW THAT THEN WHAT HOPE IS THERE FOR ME and this person over here is already saying that the thing is already not a thing anymore and I was going to say something funny about the thing sounding a bit like a fruit or something but now I might as well just not say anything because I have no idea what I’m doing in this industry and everybody knows it and dammit it does sound like a fruit why can’t I just say that omg hang on the person who said it in the first place has now said what they meant was something a bit different to what everybody is saying and they’re all wrong and there’s a bit of an argument going on I wish I could say the fruit thing why don’t I know what’s going on.
but it’s alright. you probably don’t need to know.
but it’s true, if you’re sat in the half-darkness of a meetup in the basement of the faculty of brain hurt sciences or the half-brightness of a design agency eyebrow in a soho loft listening to that person you’ve always wanted to listen to and then they casually throw out reference to the thing and everybody in the room laughs and you don’t know why so you laugh along but you’re thinking to yourself omg I only just managed to get to grips with ironic self-referential unicorn bon-mots what is this that I’m now supposed to knowingly acknowledge without actually anybody actually ever telling me to my satisfaction WHAT IT ACTUALLY IS AND INCIDENTALLY I’M BEGINNING TO GET AM I THE ONLY PERSON WHO DOESN’T ACTUALLY KNOW RAGE ACTUALLY then, surely, I’m not the only person who doesn’t get it.
it’s alright. you’re not. imposter syndrome hits everyone. it’s always been there. except now it’s accelerated and amplified by the immediacy of the broadcast and disseminate model of social sharing. the discoverability of knowing what you apparently don’t know is optimised to a point that it almost happens in negative time. it’s over before it emerges. you’re already too late. you missed the fruit joke.
but it’s alright. I’m so far behind I’m actually way ahead. at least, that’s how I deal with it.
whereupon the twentieth century withered to its unceremonious and overinflated end and so began the shift from simply doing to understanding for as the question of needs and behaviours was seen to encompass a new empathetic aesthetic in reality we were simply questioning why the plans were neither best laid or with foundation since we couldn’t adequately express those plans in terms of the context by which end users were to be expected to interact engage and consume far less for us to imagine that we might somehow manage a longer term expectation through a better understanding of the psychology of human behaviours specifically related to the interface of interactions between ourselves and the pixels and patterns on the viewing planes of the computer display in this regard we were learning to manage the subtle increments to our references for human computer interactions and how we applied those increments to our clumsy manifestations of engineering design those crude responses to the predominantly functional definition of a problem boundary sufficed for our early renditions of solutions as experiences but fell some way short of a necessary incorporation of a significantly broader set of methods and practices borrowed and repurposed for a new set of inputs for a new set of outputs in that crossover from a popularisation of web design based on an abstract representation of basic human and computer interaction points to a deeper understanding of the cognitive primitives that in turn become the patterns of behaviour that model an interaction was nothing short of revelatory in a few short years at the very end of a century the principals of design shifted from physical to experiential in a way that few might have been in a position to really articulate moreover it was more closely aligned to the visions of the near future we were living expressed fifty years previously by the likes of clarke and asimov in their explorations of a developing sentience and self awareness in the objects and interfaces that we humans create to satisfy the craving to objectify ourselves perhaps at the beginning of the new century designing for a new set of experiences was a reaction to a search for a new set of meanings as a new millennium forced us to collectively appraise our progress against that imagined future and seek new way to express meaning through the design of the world around us based on a closer focus on our own position within it what this was really bound by was the extent to which our ability to reinvent ourselves was limited by our need to attach meaning to our roles by association with and extension of a discrete collection of principles seemingly snatched from the grip of a decaying academia half buried by the weight of its own expectation