what we am are

the structure of everything

from the fragments of collapsed stars we’ve evolved into a species that relentlessly seeks to define the structure of our universe. that we divine meaning and our sense of place from the arrangement of everything is as derivative of our own introspection as it is descriptive of our search for enlightenment. we are, and we create our own structures, to define the universe around us. and as we place ourselves in the contexts of the universes we create, as hypotheses to evaluate the meaning of existence, we assimilate all that is concrete, transient and peripheral. it is part of what makes us evolved as reasoning animals that we strive to deconstruct, to understand the story of how we became to be where and how we are. we seek to follow the desire path of our creation and being, back to the dark colossal mass of anti-existence, where structure, form and flow had no definition. in following the path to the very beginning, perhaps we can imagine a path to the very end, and in doing so, make sense of the place we find ourselves in relation to everything else. like a touchpoint in the universe. neither pain or opportunity. just is. just now. like touching god for a moment. a kind of experiential occasionalism.

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.

the relationship between context, query and linked data

I’m just trying to work this out

a picture of the thing I’m trying to work out.

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.

I’ll come back to it.

on pathways

sometimes I get all wistful about forest paths and the unloved tracks of forgotten intent. often that’s because I’m wondering where my dog is. equally often it’s because I wonder where my god is. which is to mean that I can’t begin to describe the realisation of paths less travelled whether I consider them in terms of dog or god. there’s no difference. all there is is the relic of some lost spark of curiosity manifest in the loose dirt and leaves of time.

for clarity, I don’t believe in a god. sometimes I don’t believe in my dog. but I do believe that these manifestations of chaotic traversals that scar this earth have more to do with synchronicity than we might imagine. those pathways in the forest are both the magic and the mundane. the structured and the intangible. the mirror and the well. the loved. the unloved. but above all, inextricable and beautiful. for every half-trodden pathway, there exists a sense of the terrible and wonderful history of the moments that make that path place. place where you, I, my dog, and an epoch of experiences come together in the half-light and a half-glance as we pass through time and wonder; what if?

whereupon someone’s jack russell jumps at the leg of time itself and the moment is lost in an apology and a god biscuit. but, just before that, as time stands still at the branch of life, where instinct begets choice and all history collides, we’re faced with the overwhelming sense that not taking that path might be to deny ourselves reward. reward for curiosity. reward for courage. reward for conviction. if we don’t take that path now, we’re just another part of someone’s else’s tomorrow. the tomorrow where they, their dog, and an epoch of experiences come together in the half-light and a half-glance as they pass through time and wonder; what if?

but the truth about these paths is that you can’t find these paths if you look for these paths. for they exist only in the blind spots of consciousness. you can only see them if you look away. and then only if you’re in the right place. at the right time. and only if the path is looking for you. and there’s a raven on an oak tree reciting the autobiography of edgar allen poe. or something. the point is, as we move through time and space on the bark and boards of our earthly existence, our sense of place is as much to do with the predictability of the path as it with the beauty of the unknown. and seizing the unknown may be our only chance to be lost to the forest forever.

there’s no parallel with findability or discoverability here, much as I’d like to bring it to a conclusion that has something vaguely to do with signposting and waymarking and user experience, it’s just something that’s occurred to me and I wrote some words about. maybe I could draw a parallel to information architecture or something. maybe not.

listening post: genesis – supper’s ready

Yes I do that too

A continuing and repeated conversation at the IA summit in Baltimore this week is about knowing how to say what you think you can say about the things you’d like to say.

That can be having a bazillion drafts of blog posts that you think nobody is ever going to want to read, or wondering whether anyone in their right mind would sit through 45 minutes of you telling them how you actually have no idea what you’re talking about but that’s alright because you’re not about to change the world with your reimagineeration of practice fundamentals you just did a thing recently that included some of the stuff that everybody here also seems to be doing but you weren’t sure whether you were doing the right IA thing and actually you weren’t even sure it was IA at all but, like, it was just a good story about how I did a thing which you think is a bit like how other people do a thing and perhaps is would be interesting to other people to see how I did it you know like let’s understand how we actually do what we do with the things we know and see if we might learn something or validate an approach or find a different way to do it rather that necessarily trying to understand how calling something a fish means I’ve subconsciously induced a cognitive brain spasm which can be expressed as an inducement to a systemic failure in brain pattern structure mapping that is an unavoidable and not entirely unexpected relation of disentropy that exposes your failing as a labelling person to understand the role of that artefact in the ontology of the universe of stuffz.

We want to hear and read and see and discuss that stuff. We just want you to tell a story about what you’ve been doing. It’s pretty simple. I mean, we like the big crazy things, but there’s nothing like a good story, well told, about a personal experience, that helps us say YES I DO THAT TOO.

The trouble with context

At the Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore, I’ve just had the pleasure of a full day with Karen McGrane, considering content strategies for mobile which of course isn’t content strategies for mobile at all but content strategies for content which might somehow be consumed by 76% of us using some kind of hand-held device or other as the primary device that we use to consume that stuff because that’s our preference notwithstanding the fact that indeed for some 40% or other of the 76% or other that preference is actually the only option because using a smartphone to access the internet is the only way to do it and don’t forget that an ever-growing percentage or other of the new natives in the 18-24 age range just actually don’t see why you’d want to access the internet on anything other than your smartphone because, like, using a proper computer is what your dad does in the corner of the home office and I should know because that dad is me.

Which is to say, don’t get led astray by implied contexts of physical devices when considering the user needs and behaviours in relation to the structure and organisation of the content they may consume. There is no specific mobile use case that defines a content strategy when considering your options for creating a compelling user experience. There is only content. And the structure of that content. And the user experience of interacting with that content is what defines the context of use. It is a misappropriation of the term to hypothesise scenarios based on context, since context can only ever be undefined up to the point at which the manifestation of the moment of interaction occurs.

We can, of course, be pragmatic and facilitate a conversation about context by making some assumptions about likely renditions of scenes where actors follow a script to bring to life some awkwardly cinematic versions of potentially reasonably representative portrayals of the personification of a user need. These are the ‘what if’ propositions that at least enable us to align our thought gazelles behind a weirdly myopic vision of a real life event. It enables us to say ‘that might happen. what might we consider based on the knowledge acquired from that?’ And actually, we can write pretty good scripts. And we can develop pretty good personas.

But we’re just making it up. And we bring to that imagination every subtle or not so subtle nuance of our own limited experiences and assumptions to the point where we can imagine a whole sundance festival of what ifs but if the only person in the audience for the special screening of ‘a series of what ifs in the style of a seemingly disconnected robert altman style parable that ultimately defines the human experiences but coincidentally demonstrates the likely context of use for you the user’ just sits there slowly shaking their head muttering something like ‘they don’t understand. they don’t understand’ then we’re wasting our time.