Things what I writ

I sometimes write nonsense about things to try and sound clever

the structure of everything

drops 1
drops 1 by Tim Caynes

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 glorious IA summit

it feels like it’s been a lifetime since I returned from Baltimore after the glorious IA summit at the beginning of April. it’s the event that leaves you feeling like that when its over, like the end of a long hot summer where you gambolled through the shimmering and abundant fields of learning, dancing like a teenager with your new best friends dipping your toes in the stream of enlightenment and talking like you don’t know the words for the things you have to say, watching the proud and beautiful stags of truth barking atop the mountain as if to say THERE IS NO TRUTH, JUST THE ONTOLOGY OF TRUTHS, COME HEAR ME, FOR I AM THE STAG OF BEAUTY AND I SPEAK OF THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO MAKE AND BY THE WAY SINCE I’M A PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION OF ALL YOUR ENDEAVOURS I REALLY AM THE MISSING LINK BETWEEN THE COGNITIVE AND SPATIAL DEFINITION OF CONTEXT THAT DEFINES IT ALL. HURRAH!

or something like that. to be clear, there is a reason I allocate 100% of my available budget to attend this one event each year. it’s because I get a year’s worth of worth from it. I mean, I go to quite a few smaller events throughout the year and meet splendid and lovely people and see inspiring and challenging speakers and learn so much about things that are totally relevant to me. but the IA summit is quite different. without wishing to get weirdly evangelical and creepy about it (and not the dan willis kind of creepy), I believe it’s an event that changes lives. overstating it? maybe. but I know that attending for the last few years has changed me for the better. and I’ve spoken to many people who have attended, often for the first time, who are so touched and moved and surprised and enlivened by their attendance that they can’t quite express what it is that it’s done to them. I’m not about to qualify what ‘better’ means, because that’s not the point. I don’t do definitions. but what better means to me is what counts. the change for the better is what I recognise in myself and how I attribute that change to my attendance at the IA summit is up to me. nobody can alter that.

in the grand scheme of things, with so much going in the world, and so many demands and so little time and so much to do and so much to say and so many responsibilities and so on and so on it is perhaps easy to say fuck’s sake it’s only a conference for people who get weirdly obsessed about the structure of things and why are you getting so worked up about it there’s more important things to worry about but whatever. let me bark this at you. THIS EVENT IS AN OASIS OF AWESOME. IT CHANGES LIVES. I AM THE STAG OF TRUTH SO HEAR ME ROAR.

thank you to the beautiful people, old and new, that make the change happen. I love you. if anyone would like to tell me to calm down, don’t bother.

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.

Building theme-based information architectures

There is often a temptation to dive into information architecture design based solely on acquired knowledge and a well-articulated business objective. It’s quite possible to produce meaningful taxonomies and content structures in this way, especially for discrete, closely scoped projects. However, some of the most effective structures evolve when iterative analysis of research findings and discussion outputs start to surface emerging themes.

I recently worked on the development of a new sales and investments channel for one of our financial services clients. A sales and investments channel in of itself is not a particularly unusual proposition and there is a depth of experience within the team that might predict some of the outcomes. We might even consider sketching out the concepts in our heads just to start the conversation, since the business objective is reasonably clear. In doing that, we might even get it done quicker than anybody planned, or budgeted for. I might even get home in time for tea.

How we really maximise the potential of the design phase is if we take the insights from a well-executed discovery phase, invest meaningful time to digest and analyse the messages we’re getting from customers, and we start to build up a picture of an ideal customer journey. I’m not talking here about spending a day in a dark room with a stationary cupboard’s worth of post-it notes and walking away with a full site map. All we should really be aiming for at the end of an initial design session is identifying those emerging themes and understanding how accurately they reflect the voice of the customer. Themes are really just a logical clustering of questions, statements and pain-points related to a customer’s interaction. Since they’re deliberately vague at the early stages of design, they’re not distinct categorisations with well specified hard attributes, but more of an expression of the customer needs and desires. If that doesn’t sound pompous enough, I’d also suggest that they often describe the soft attributes of the customer’s emotional engagement with the site, for example, ‘I’m worried about the future’, or ‘I need help on this’. Identifying these themes early provides a clear customer-centric reference when iterating into task-based journeys and navigation models.

Themes are also a great way to solicit empathetic feedback. It’s more meaningful to describe a potential customer journey to a client, for example, if they can clearly empathise with the customer. Using needs-based descriptions with more open language, through themes, it can be much easier to evaluate a customer journey than by simply referencing a label on a navigation entry point. Consider the difference between ‘Protecting my future’ as a theme and ‘Savings’ as a label. While one might not map directly to the other, there is still a much clearer expression of the customer need through a theme-based approach, which sets the context for discussion and iteration.

There are number of approaches to how we take discovery outputs and begin to build out information architectures that place the customer at the heart of the discussion. Using a theme-based approach is one of those that I rather like and it has proved successful in articulating the voice of the customer, particularly when talking with clients. While this has been a brief outline of the approach and some of the benefits, feel free to contact us to find out more.

The IA Has Landed

Its been a good long while since Martin left us to ramp up the customer experience over at Cisco, and then our über information architect, Jennifer, jumped ship for a measly directorship. Since then, we’ve tried to maintain a steady course through the icebergs of web experience design and other shipping analogies that have come our way. Sometimes you can pull in the slack, and share the extra workload between those of you that are left, but its not always been super effective, and, from an IA perspective, we’ve become slightly rudderless. I mean, we can launch the rescue boats pretty effectively when we’re responding to web distress calls, and we’ve always been pretty good navigators, but there’s not really been anyone up in the IA bridge for a while, playing a strong captain’s role.

So, hurrah! then, for the arrival, this week, of our new Lead Information Architect (and for a paragraph devoid of nautical wordery nonsense). Holly started on Monday and will, I’m sure, do a great job in her new role. I’m already putting her name next to a number of projects that desperately require the attention of someone who actually knows what they are talking about, and I’m looking forward to seeing some much-needed IA focus back on our projects. Welcome Holly. I’ve got this web feedback task taxonomy that needs a bit of work if you’re available. Oh, and the product categories could use some direction. And the gateways of course. And what about that home page stuff? etc…

Listening Post: Robyn Hitchcock: Surgery for SMBs

We’ve got a new place for Small and Medium Businesses on Take a look. It’s called “Sun’s Place for Small and Medium Businesses”. And guess what. It’s full of stuff for Small and Medium Businesses.

Why is this significant? You’d be correct in thinking this would be very old news for some of our competitors, who have their entire portfolio of products and services arranged by business or audience, right from the home page and throughout their sites. Sun, however, never ones to follow a trend, have always adopted a product-oriented information architecture and stuck with it through sea-changes in marketing and sales. Whatever our key messages are, and however they are woven into the fabric of, you know you can always find our products by following predictable and consistent paths. There have always been logical groupings of products as solutions, or as part of selected promotions, but, you know, they’ve never really done the job of speaking to a particular market segment.

So that’s why the Small and Medium Business section is important. It’s a first step into supporting customers that might share common business needs, rather than providing a bunch of great products that might fit together as a discrete solution package. Of course, what’s important for a specific market is how our solutions enable them to solve their business problems, but previously, you’d be looking for the solution yourself, rather than having your own space, where Sun is able to highlight those that we already know will be important to you.

It’s only a start, in terms of designing for addressable markets, but the change in focus for the information architecture is hugely significant, so it’s an exciting development. You are still reading this, right?

Listening Post: Half Man Half Biscuit: Breaking News



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