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 articulation of design

I had a lovely long conversation today about what design is and why we do it. I paraphrase:

in order to explain the progression from what we understand to the things we make we undertake a deliberately unstructured approach to divining meaning and distilling insights such that we might evolve and create structures and make sense of that which we’re analysing in order that we can confidently develop evidence-based hypotheses that describe the behaviours we want to effect and the human outcomes we want to see.

but also sometimes we just make things up because nothing makes sense and it’s not really that bad if you just have a good idea and see if it works because if I really only created things with a direct, methodical, causal relationship to the user intents and behaviours I need to support then I would actually be pretty bored because the act of creation must be the sum of all knowledge and that means that since I know lots of stuff I probably know many of the outcomes and I have a pretty good idea of what might work but omg that’s just designing for yourself how dare you that’s not what we do call yourself an experience designer actually no.

but in the end the design we do is only as good as our ability to articulate its value. value to users. value to stakeholders. value to the universe. and most importantly the value to us, the creators. for if I invest in the creative endeavour with disregard to the impact it has on me then I deny myself the opportunity to explore my capabilities, weaknesses, inspirations and, fundamentally, my ability to communicate new ideas.

it’s the articulation of design that gives design meaning and value. it’s an acquired skill. you have to practice and get good at it. but once you’ve got it, design makes sense. not just in the way you describe it to others, but how you describe it to yourself. and that’s where you begin to understand the real value of what you do.

and yes, italics.

update: much talk regarding articulating the value of design at this week’s Leading Design conference which had many heads nodding including my own but in an agreeable way not a falling asleep way and while I suggest that the value of articulation can be most readily appreciated in the way it enables you to understand and evolve your own work the gaping void between doing design and expressing the value of design is still largely being quacked into, leaving stakeholders and business leaders to cup their ears at the silence. the need to describe value has never been greater and the Leading Design conference connected some lovely people to share their experiences and advocate some effective methods for doing just that so thank you to Andy Budd and Clearleft for making it happen.

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.

10 years of meetings

I wrote this ten years ago. nothing ever really changes.

You just click on your name and then go to that menu on the left. no, the top. Hang on… So, I select my name, right and what? Go to the menu and select ‘make me great’. I don’t have that option. Oh. No. Wait. I need to make you great so you can share your greatness. Wait a minute here…Ok, you should be great now. Well, I have a circle next to my name, does that make me great? Erm, I think so. Try to do something great. Ok, what like? Try sharing your greatness with the rest of us. Ok, hang on, share…um…greatness! Right. Do you see my greatness. Oh, no, wait. I’ve got a popup. It says I can’t be great because its not my meeting. You need to make it my meeting before I can share my greatness. Is yours still there? No, its downloading an update of itself. Oh, right, so what about you? It rebooted my computer. Oh. Do you own the meeting yet? Um…well…I have a square next to my name now. Not a circle? No, a square, with a circle in it. What colour is the circle? Its blue. And the square? That’s blue as well. What? And the circle is inside the square? Yeah. Never mind. Do you see greatness on the menu now. Hello? Are you there? I think they’ve gone. Hell…Hello? Sorry, I was on mute hahaha. Ok, it says I now own the meeting and so I’m going to share…greatness! Ok. Go! Right. And now I see your desktop, is that right? No, we should see yours. Well, I can see mine. Yes, but that’s your desktop. That’s behind the share app. What share app? The one you’re trying to share your greatness with. OOHH. I SEE! Right, wait, I get it now. Hang on…

click. click click click. taptaptap tappy tap tap. click….

click. tap tap tap tap tap tapapapapa tap tap tap. click……

Oh. Um. Its asking me to download version I can’t share my greatness with this version. It says it will only take 30 seconds. Wait a sec…

click. click. 7 minutes life vacuum.

Ok. I have to reboot to finish the installation. Is there another agenda item that we can go to while I get this working? I’m really sorry. I’m not really very familiar with this application. Ok, well, we’ll move on to the next item and come back to you when you have th — BEEP BEEP BEEP. What? Hello? Oh. I think we lost her. Right. Ok. Never mind. Let’s move on to the next item in the agenda, which iiis.let’s see…yes. Video conference with Singapore and the UK. Let’s see, we’ve got 5 minutes left, so let’s go ahead and try the video. Does everyone know where the video conference room is? Right, its in building 7. You just go out the lobby, get in your car and drive to building 94 and it’s on the second floor. The room’s called ‘Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ or something.


changing titles

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.

listening post: pink floyd – sheep

send your children to conferences

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.

listening post: xtc – towers of london