Overthinking Simplicity

Photo by Wade Morgen - [flic.kr/p/bDmwy4](http://flic.kr/p/bDmwy4) Via Marco Arment, I found this post by Lukas Mathis about his experience switching from an iPad to a Windows Surface tablet. The main reason he gives for switching is that the simplicity of ithe Pad makes it hard for him to do productivity work, er, productively.

"Apple has decided to make the iPad as simple as possible, but sometimes, this simplicity comes at the expense of power. Not having any kind of window management or split-screen view makes the iPad much easier to use, but it also means you can’t look at an email and at a Pages document at the same time. Preventing apps from interacting with each other cuts down on complexity, but it also means that it is difficult or sometimes even impossible to use multiple apps in conjunction on the same task. Not having any kind of system-level concept of a file or a document means that people are less likely to lose track of their files or documents, but it also means that you are often very limited in what you can do with the things you create in an iPad app."

Simplicity is a tricky thing to grapple with. What kind of simplicity are we talking about here? Simplicity in visual design? In a solution? Of a process? The iPad simplifies much of the cognitive overhead required to use a computing device. It simplifies app installation and upgrades, peripheral management (in that you don't need peripherals to use the iPad), battery management, connectivity, portability, app management, file storage, and lots of other aspects of computing. In doing so, it simultaneously makes some aspects of computing more complex.

As Mathis points out, for some computing tasks where having access to two apps at the same time increases productivity, the iPad offers a less than ideal experience. If you need to do these kinds of tasks frequently, the iPad has not simplified them for you. In fact, it has made these kinds of tasks more complex, not less.

Mathis's argument put me in mind of the trade offs I wrestle with when designing taxonomies and navigation. When designing navigation labels, shorter words and phrases are better, right? Well, not if they make it harder to understand the thing being labeled. Fewer choices in a navigation menu are better, right? Not if the things your customers are looking for are left out. A global header with two or three choices is simpler than one with 15, right? Not if you've made the customer click to find something they could have found previously at a glance, or if they never click because they simply assume you don't have what they're looking for.

These trade offs often take the guise of aesthetic simplicity versus functional simplicity. These are not equivalent, though they are frequently conflated. Aesthetic simplicity removes buttons, decoration, text, and anything else that's visually superfluous. Functional simplicity removes steps in a process or cognitive overhead (the need to think intently about your interaction or experience). Both types of simplicity are desirable, but I believe that functional simplicity ultimately wins over more users than aesthetic simplicity.

But the dimensions are a bit more complex than this simple dichotomy. Functional simplicity exists on a spectrum. What's simple to me may not be simple to you. This is somewhat analogous to the way experts tend to use more precise terms than laymen. It's simpler for horticulturists to communicate using correct Latin plant designations, for instance, than to try to struggle through the ambiguity using common names.

For Mathis, the iPad isn't functionally simple. From his perspective, the Windows Surface — by allowing the use of two apps at once — is simpler than the iPad for his most important or frequent tasks. For me, the additional complexity of the Surface overall isn't worth trading my iPad to get a simpler experience for this particular use case.

To each his own. Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, and it's great that we have a choice of devices -- and terminology -- to meet our individual needs.

Photo by Wade Morgen - [flic.kr/p/bDmwy4](http://flic.kr/p/bDmwy4)

How Search Amplifies Enterprise Collaboration

There's so much good stuff in this post by Christian Buckley. It's about enterprise collaboration, but his points apply to issues of findability generally. The central idea that sticks out to me: context is key to findability, and social interactions are great sources of contextual cues. As Buckley points out, though, context is mostly missing from modern search and navigation.

I also love this comment from Steven Flinn summing up the different modes of finding:

  1. Follow — when you are aware of sources of generally relevant information
  2. Search — when you are aware that you have a need for some information now, but don’t know where it is
  3. Discovery (i.e., recommendations) — when you have a need for some information now, but are not even aware you need it and/or that it exists.

Don't like

Smart post by jeswin about how Facebook is broken by design.

In the end, there is a lot to learn from this massive social experiment. Your friend circle and impulsive actions such as ‘likes’ cannot predict what you want to read. Indiscriminate sharing is a bad idea. A large social network isn’t the best way to find information.

Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

Data, information, knowledge, and wisdom… for all the importance these concepts take on in our lives, the terms we use to describe them are poorly understood, often confused, and frequently used interchangeably. But to a student of information management, each word has a specific meaning.

What's the difference? Consider this: if you're driving for the first time outside of the US and your speedometer reads 85, do you know what that means? How about if you notice the letters "kph" next to the 85? So you know that's kilometers per hour, but do you have any idea how that translates to miles per hour?

Or how about if I show you this set of numbers:


What does that mean to you? Nothing? It's just data, right?

What if I told you it's a Pantone swatch number? Now what does it mean to you? My guess: unless you work in a print shop, probably not much. Here's a bit more information:

That's Pantone 19-1664, aka "True Red".

So now you know.

The examples above demonstrate some of the subtle shades of difference between the words that make up our data-information-knowledge-wisdom continuum (sometimes visualized as a pyramid).

  • Data is a collection of points with no discernible meaning.
  • Information is data in context.
  • Knowledge is information that has been assimilated in the mind.
  • Wisdom is the application of knowledge.

Sure… sounds easy when you say it fast. Maybe a visual example will help:

This is data: an undifferentiated mass of individual letters. Data

This is information: by organizing a meaningful arrangement of letters by color, a message emerges from the data.


This is knowledge: it's the same undifferentiated mass of individual letters as before, but you can still read the message because you know where to look; you’ve assimilated the information.


This is wisdom: because of your previous experience, you can make a pretty good guess which one of these grids is more likely to contain a message.


If you've confused these terms in the past, you can be forgiven. The imprecise use of these words is rampant. I looked up information in Wordnik, which shows the American Heritage Dictionary definition using the term knowledge to define information.

[bangs head on desk]

But you no longer have to be confused, gentle reader. Go forth and use your newfound knowledge wisely.

App.Net as a proto personal cloud service and VRM accelerator

Photo by Sam Howzit - http://flic.kr/p/dhu7NB

If you haven't paid much attention to App.net (ADN) lately, maybe it's because it was easy to dismiss the service early on as a mere Twitter wanna-be. But it's clear now that ADN's Twitter clone (alpha.app.net) is only a demonstration of one kind of app that can be built on the ADN infrastructure. ADN founder Dalton Caldwell believes his team is creating a personal cloud platform that will be home to a multitude of interesting services.

It's still early days for App.net, but after poking around the service for the past few months and listening to a few podcasts where Caldwell has talked at length about what his team is trying to build, I'm convinced that ADN is something the VRM community should be paying more attention to.

Here's the thing: ADN is not a true VRM service and it's not a true personal cloud service, but it bakes in some of the core elements of each. And the way the service is constructed is prompting its growing base of developers and users to think differently about their relationship to web services. And this new way of thinking could lead these users directly to true VRM and personal cloud services in the future.

ADN could be an accelerator for VRM if the VRM community chooses to see it that way.

Here are some data points I find interesting. See what you think:

Core Values

Take a look at ADN's core values. The first two are:

  • We are selling our product, NOT our users.
  • You own your content.

Right off the top, these values set ADN apart from services like Google, Twitter and Facebook, whose motives are more aligned with advertisers than with users.

The rest of the core values emphasize financial and philosophical alignment with members and developers. ADN is building a sustainable business that benefits when its users benefit.

Privacy and Terms

Read the Terms of Service and the Privacy Policy. Go ahead. Here's the thing: you can actually read them. They're short, written in straightforward language, and they're kept in a GitHub repository so you can suggest changes. The App.net terms aren't perfect, but they're not bad and on the whole they're user-friendly.

Sounds like a personal cloud to me

ADN has defined a File API that allows each user free access to 20 GB of disk space for storing images, documents, or any other type of file. (The company has hinted that more storage may eventually be available for a price.) The benefit of storing your files on ADN is that you can allow them to be accessed by any service using the ADN API (what Lou Franco calls BYOBE, or Bring-Your-Own-Back-End).

So, for instance, if you joined a Flickr-like photo sharing service that stored your photos in the ADN file store, you could switch to a competing ADN-enabled photo sharing service at any time and you wouldn't have to rebuild your photo library from scratch. You could just point the new service to your photos and keep on truckin'. Or use the two services side-by-side. It's up to you.

While this would fail some tests of a true personal cloud (such as the ability to pick your own file server) what App.net offers within its service is personal cloud-like, and I'm not aware of any other popular web services that offer something similar.

Your data is your data

In addition to porting files from service to service, ADN allows all of your data to move freely via its API. That means your messages, your list of followers and who you follow, your list of interactions, and anything else that ADN stores can be reused by any app using the ADN API. Or, you can export your data and social graph and take them to another service.

Expressing intent with ADN

Project Llama wants to expand ADN's annotations so that users can tag their accounts with keywords that describe themselves and what they're looking for. So, for instance, I might tag myself as a "hockey fan" who is looking for "Tampa Bay Lightning tickets". I don't think Project Llama is thinking of itself as building a VRM-type expression of intent, but it's not to hard to see how it could become one.

Straight from the horse's mouth

Here are some recent podcasts where Dalton goes into detail about what he thinks ADN is:

A big but…

My argument is not that App.net is a true VRM service or even a true personal cloud. For one thing, App.net isn't focused on enabling relationships with vendors outside of the ADN universe. For another, currently App.net is just a another silo. A true personal cloud service would be agnostic about where files or graphs are stored.

However, Dalton Caldwell believes he's creating a personal cloud. And, certainly, with its emphasis on individual control of personal data, the aims and intentions of App.net echo the values espoused by the VRM community. And ADN is prompting developers to think differently about the types of apps they build and their relationship to user data in a way that makes true VRM solutions a more obvious next step. And that is something that the VRM community -- that all of us -- should be celebrating and supporting.

I'm @stumax on App.net. I'd love to have you follow me there. And if you'd like an invite for a free ADN account, email me at stumaxis at gmail.

Notes from the 2013 IA Summit, Baltimore, MD

Baltimore Inner Harbor, evening

Last week I attended the IA Summit in Baltimore. It was my first IA Summit and I'm very glad I decided to go. I met so many intelligent, thoughtful, and passionate practitioners (and academics) of information architecture, and I found myself inspired and challenged to raise my game and do better work.

The following are some of my rough notes from the five days of the conference. While this is short on narrative, I hope there are enough nuggets of wisdom and links to explore that you'll find something new to think about.


Some of the major concepts that kept cropping up for me:

  • Information Ecosystems
  • Information Ecologies
  • We need better tools
  • The new spirit of IA is, as Christian Crumlish put it: Third Wave IA - or Resmini-Hinton-Arango IA - the high level stuff; what is this, what does it do, what is going on in the user’s brain?


  • "We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future." - Marshall McLuhan
  • Do what you do best, and link to the rest. -Jeff Jarvis
  • "Man is a being in search of meaning" -Plato
  • "Language is infrastructure" - Andrew Hinton
  • "Un esprit nouveau souffle aujourd'hui" (There is a new spirit today) -Le Courbusier
  • "Cyberspace is not a place you go to but rather a layer tightly integrated into the world around us." - Andrea Resmini
  • "IA is focused on the structural integrity of meaning" - Jorge Arango
  • "Once there was a time and place for everything: today, things are increasingly smeared across multiple sites and moments in complex and often indeterminate ways." W. J. Mitchell
  • "Christina Wodtke makes me brave. She says 'Here, put this in your mouth.'" -Abbe Covert
  • "The difference between our websites and a ginormous fungus is the the fungus has maintained it’s integrity." -Lisa Welchman
  • "We live in Einsteinian physics, where things are both a particle and a wave." -Lisa Welchman
  • "There are usually political barriers to solving information problems on sites. They’re not IA problems." - Lisa Welchman
  • "I’m doing more IA and UX now as a product manager than I ever did when I was a UX designer" - Donna Lichaw
  • "We may be confused, but we have a community of confusion" - Bryce Glass
  • "Mathematicians have a saying: Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back." -Karl Fast
  • "Discovery is not a phase, It is an ongoing activity" -Kerry-Anne Gilowey

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Academics and Practitioners Round Table: Reframing Information Architecture

Creating a timeline of IA "Un esprit nouveau souffle aujourd'hui" (A new spirit breathes [lives] today)

Andrea Resmini introduced the day by putting the current information ecology in perspective for us. We have moved from a world where computing was done in a specific time and place to a world where computing is ever-present. "Cyberspace is not a place you go to but rather a layer tightly integrated into the world around us."

For example, the average citizen in the EU spends 29.5 hours computing each week. The average citizen in the UK spends 39 hours computing each week.

The day was structured around groups of Ignite-style talks, with discussion and an exercise after each.

Talks for Part 1

David Fiorito: The Cultural Dimensions Of Information Architecture.

Culture is a learned and shared way of living; we are creating culture through IA

David Peter Simon: Complexity Mapping

We need to develop device-agnostic content.

We think a lot about how content will be presented (different forms like tablets, watches, google glasses) but we don't think so much about how information will be presented on those new forms.

Simon Norris

"Man is a being in search of meaning" -Plato

Take a meaning-first approach to IA. Start with meaning

Matt Nish-Lapidus: Design For The Network: The Practice Of 21st Century Design And IA

The Romans built road networks to spread their cultural software. We build networks to spread a different type of cultural software.

Lev Manovich talks about the Cultural Interface: "…we are no longer interfacing to a computer but to culture encoded in digital form …" (Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (2001))

We need a new design practice for the networked world, one that embraces humans, technology, craft, and interface.

Culture is moving faster and faster, moving up in the pace layer diagram

Recap and discussion from Part 1

Was Le Corbusier an IA? He was part of our history, one of the people whose shoulders we stand on, but his work must be understood in the context of his time. Calling him an IA wouldn't be fair.

Does the IA create meaning by designing which resource is linked, or is there no way to create meaning because there are so many hyperlinks that users create their own meaning?

Christina Wodtke suggested developing a "Poetics of information architecture"

Talks for Part 2

(Note: I missed a speaker here, but I think it was Duane Degler)

Sally Burford: The Practitioners of Web IA Reviewed some research into The practice of IA at small and large organizations. IA needs to develop an identity, to take a strong stance

Jason Hobbes and Terrence Fenn: The IA of Meaning-Making

Defining the problem defines the solution; this is the problem/solution ecology

The IA design deliverable is resolving the problem/solution ecology

Recap and discussion from Part 2

What's missing around IA in the academic community?

There is no written history of IA. (Some suggested a book by Earl Morrow (?), but others thought even that book was out of date).

It's hard to have a career in academia when the term IA is not understood.

Activity: create a timeline of IA

Our Timeline of IA as a Discipline

Talks for Part 3

Dan Klyn: Dutch Uncles, Ducks, And Decorated Sheds

Meaning should be the center of our reframe of IA

Don't bake meaning into structure; keep them separate

Jorge Arango: "Good Fit" In The Design Of Information Spaces

Jorge developed themes from Alexander's Notes On The Synthesis Of Form.

The designer has to create a mental picture of the actual world. In really complex problems, formal representations of the mental model need to be created.

Andrew Hinton: A Model for Information Environments

IA has always been architecture of a dimension of a shared reality.

Keith Instone

We should continue working on reframing IA by thinking of it as a design problem.

Recap and discussion from Part 3

IA is about solving a problem.

Activity - List The Schools Of IA Thought

Reframe IA discussion

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Workshop - Modeling Structured Content

Mike Atherton

Modeling Structured Content at IA Summit 2013

From background presentation for the workshop:

Don't reinvent, link!

  • Define the boundaries of your domain
  • Where objects touch existing models, use them instead of replicating them
  • If canonical content pages already exist on your website for domain objects, link to them
  • Don't have more than one page covering the same topic

Shared model + shared language + shared understanding = consistent user experience

From the workshop:

Structured content refers to information or content that has been broken down and classified using metadata.

  • broken down into discrete concepts
  • classified as real world things and relationships
  • metadata: a structure readable by robots and people

Knowledge rejects rigid structure.

When we use the same language to describe the same things, we can build a web of knowledge across various services.

Structured content breaks down information into things and the relationships between them. A content model maps our subject domain, not our website structure or content inventory. Assertions distinguish between real-world things and the documents that refer to them.

Experts map the world, users mark points of interest.

Modeling begins with research, talking to experts and users to understand and articulate the subject. Ubiquitous language describes the granular terms that will be used by everyone on the project. Boundary objects show where your subject model can connect to neighboring models.

Content is hard.

Everything starts with good content. Content is not the stuff we pour into nicely designed containers. It's not the stuff we chase up from the client at the last moment. It is not a placeholder. Content is the whole damn point.

"Do what you do best, and link to the rest." -Jeff Jarvis

The link forces specialization and specialization demands quality

Other parts of your organization may be sitting on a goldmine of content or business data. Find it and exploit it.

The BBC's principles:

  • Never duplicate coverage within your own content (one page per thing)
  • Do what you do best and link to the rest
  • Create chunks based on the granularity of the model
  • Be realistic about which parts of the model you can expose

Wrap Up

  • Structured content breaks subjects into things and relationships
  • It begins by talking to experts and users to understand their world
  • The mental model becomes a content model for your whole team
  • Your content needs to be atomized to align to the model
  • Supporting content may be hiding in your business silos
  • "One page per thing" makes content easier to manage and link to
  • Make the best content available for your subject
  • Focus each page around a single topic
  • Structure your content with metadata
  • Link as much as you possibly can

Friday, April 5, 2013

Baltimore Light House

Keynote: Beyond Mobile, Beyond Web: The Internet of Things Needs Our Help

Scott Jenson

We often walk right past the next big thing.

Blog post: Bears, Bats, and Bees

We are in a "model crisis"

  • Old model was buy, install, reuse (software)
  • New model is discover, use, forget (experience)

We need a Google for your room. A personal search service for the things that are important to you.

The World is the Screen: Elements of Information Environments (slides)

Andrew Hinton

Andrew Hinton

We live in both the digital and physical environments simultaneously.

We need to look at how we comprehend environments generally in order to understand how we understand digital environments.

Pace layers of information environments:

  • Information technology
  • Info organization and design
  • Written / graphical language
  • Spoken language
  • Perception / cognition

Information in three modes

  • Ecological - how animals perceive/relate to environment
  • Semantic - people communicating with people
  • Digital - digital systems transmitting to and receiving from other digital systems

Traditional cognitive theory assumes the brain is like a computer
Embodied cognition says that the brain uses the body and the environment to understand

Some key ideas from James J. Gibson’s theories

  • we perceive elements in the environments as invariant (persistent) or variant (in flux)
  • we perceive the environment in human-scale terms, not scientific abstractions
  • we perceive the environment as “nested”, not in logical hierarchy
  • Affordance: “the perceived functional properties of objects, places, and events in relation to an individual perceiver.”

Semantic information changes how we experience environment

"Language is a form of cognitive scaffolding." - Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind

The body and the ecological information can override the semantic information, as in a door that looks like a push door but has a sign that says pull.

Digital information enables pervasive semantic place-making

Slide 33 638

The 7th Occasional IA Slam

A design presentation for the American Society for Immortalization Science and Technology

Enrique Fabrique explains the IA Slam

Poster Sessions & Reception

Poster Night at IA Summit 2013

Saturday, April 6, 2013

View of the National Aquarium, Baltimore Inner Harbor

Links, Nodes, and Order: a unified theory of information architecture (slides)

Jorge Arango

Jorge Arango and the Node/Link Hierarchy

We need a better way to define what good IA is. And we need better ways to communicate about IA.

In architecture, simple forms can be recombined in different forms to create new forms.
Forms are made up of and can contain other forms

Nodes and links are our form and space
Nodes are our basic building blocks, and also the walls and buildings themselves
Nodes can contain and are made up of other nodes

Link: the relationship between nodes

There is a Form/Space Hierarchy (most complex at the top:)

  • The built world
  • Compounds
  • Buildings
  • Bounding forms
  • Construction materials

Similarly, there is a Node/Link Hierarchy (most complex at the top:)

  • The noosphere
  • Information ecosystem
  • Product / system
  • Node clusters
  • Individual nodes

We need to apply different approaches to different levels of the node/link hierarchy

IA is focused on the structural integrity of meaning.

Taxonomy for App Makers (slides)

Andy Fitzgerald

Taxonomy is rhetorical, place-making, and tied to embodiment
Mobile taxonomy is device independent
Mobile taxonomy is articulated
Mobile taxonomy is flexible

Taxonomies are goal-driven. They are rhetorical
Rhetoric - the means by which we inform, persuade, of motivate particular audiences in specific situations
Architecture is rhetoric for spaces

Taxonomy - a method of arrangement conceived to create a particular kind of understanding

Taxonomy is

  • a crossroads of intent and embodiment
  • a foundation for cross channel place-making
  • a tool for building immersive, purpose-driven organization systems based on embodied experience

Ghost in the Shell: Information Architecture in the Age of Post Digital (slides (from a previous version of this talk))

Andrea Resmini

This was a rich and thought-provoking talk, but difficult to summarize. The major themes were:

  • Complexity
  • Multiplicity
  • Postdigital
  • Architecture

There is a new spirit. It’s not towards order but towards disorder and multiplicity
A spirit of context, place and meaning
A spirit of sense-making, … and creating new places for humans to work and play

Web Governance: Where Strategy Meets Structure (slides)

Peter Morville and Lisa Welchman

Web Governance

Big governance vs, local governance
There’s a lot of stuff happening at the local [organizational] level, but few people if anyone who are looking at the overall picture.

There are usually political barriers to solving information problems on sites. They’re not IA problems.

The governance of your web:
Your “stable environment” equals clear sponsorship, goals, and accountability.
Your “good genes” are goals are policy-driven, standards-based framework
These things will allow your web to grow and still be recognizable as your web. That’s all it is.

Enterprise web governance ensures the proper stewardship of an organizational web presence.
Stewardship, not ownership.

Using Abstraction to Increase Clarity (slides)

Kaarin Hoff

Abstraction - the intentional filtering of information to focus on core goals
We must carefully choose the model through which we hold conversations. Abstractions help stakeholders discover.

Metadata in the cross-channel ecosystem: consistency, context, interoperability

Adam Ungstad

Metadata enables consistency, context, and interoperability.

A cross channel experience requires sending information across channels.

“Messages have no meaning” - Andrea Resmini
… But every message has a structure


Ontology is things and their relationships. When you have a concept of the space and you express it in a way that can be interchanged, you have an ontology.

Building the World’s Visual Language

Scott Thomas

Scott leads The Noun Project

Types of written languages:
Pictographic. Ideographic. Syllabic. Phonetic.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Inner Harbor from Federal Hill

Product Is the New Big IA

Christian Crumlish, Bryce Glass, Donna Lichaw

Panel: Product is the new Big IA

The panelists discussed moving out of IA and UX and into product roles.

Donna - "I’m doing more IA and UX now as a product manager than I ever did when I was a UX designer"

Christian - my titles have changed, but I’ve been basically doing the same thing: defining the damn thing of the product, connecting people and ideas.

Donna - A product manager is like a producer: they conceive the vision and get people moving in the same direction

Donna - In New York, no one has any idea what a product manager is

Bryce - "We may be confused, but we have a community of confusion"

Christian- Third wave IA - or Resmini-Hinton-Arango IA - the high level stuff; what is this, what does it do, what is going on in the user’s brain

Christian - There’s a clearer career path for the people who are in charge of product. There’s more headroom.

The Big Challenges of Small Data

Karl Fast

Karl Fast - The Big Challenges of Small Data

Xerox PARC identified a disease: biggerism
Solving the big problem seems more interesting, more exciting, more challenging

Small data problems: a large personal library, a desktop full of icons, a gmail inbox

Big data is about stuff that’s too big for anyone to understand

Small data is about:

  • Eyes not size - it’s about the amount of stuff that has passed by my eyes
  • Emotional - Has psychic weight, psychological debt
  • Complex problem
  • Messy

… And yet we focus on the app, not the coordination of the data

Organizations have big data problems
People have small data problems

Mathematicians have a saying: Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.

We have small data problems worth working on. We are hitting the edges of search. Where’s the difference between searching and filtering? We have faceted search and faceted navigation. Which is it?

Problems are framed by how we think about the work we do. [I would say they’re also framed by the tools we have. -sm]

We need to make significant positive progress on a hard problem. We need to not be distracted by biggerism.

Schrödinger’s IA: Learning To Love Ambiguity

Kerry-Anne Gilowy

When we go in to a project with a personal methodology…

  • We look for answers before we understand the questions.
  • We make decisions too early
  • We ignore things we can’t make fit
  • We keep going through the motions
  • We end up solving the wrong problem

We need ambiguity tolerance

Discovery is not a phase, It is an ongoing activity

Problem solving is squiggly

  1. Be honest
  2. Be confident (we need to solve the right problem)
  3. Communicate early and often
  4. Stay calm. It’s contagious
  5. Have a healthy fear of commitment
  6. Collaborate (with your client)
  7. Commit to the work, not the deliverables

Designing For Failure: How Negative Personas And Failed User Journeys Make A Better Website (slides)

Annie Drynan

Annie Dryden

Classic personas are the users we want to come to the site. We give them happy paths.

At the other end of the scale are anti-personas, people we want to discourage. (People who intend harm, people who are doing things with the service we don’t want, people who are too young)

Negative personas are not the primary audience, but may still come and be disappointed. Are we giving them what they need?

We’re not designing for everyone. But we need to acknowledge and handle pain points. In order to increase the number of satisfied customers.

Does it matter? Yes

  • We reduce the chance of complaints
  • We make social media a positive force

You can’t control who comes to the site, so you have to try just to not annoy them.

Design for success or failure.


Books, Articles, and Movies

Blog Posts and Artifacts

Video: Mind Reader Reveals his Secret Trick for Gaining Personal Info

What is the source of this mind reader's amazing powers? Prepare to be blown away.

Via Laughing Squid

VRM and Information Management

So I'm a wee bit late posting this, but I was working on a poster presentation for this year's IA Summit when I came across the notes I took for my presentation at InfoCamp Seattle 2012. It's now posted here for internet posterity.

InfoCamp intro to VRM (PDF)

I thought this might be interesting for two reasons. First, I think the central message of the presentation is still relevant: information management professionals should be at the forefront of thinking about how people identify, store, and manage their own data in a VRM-enabled world. The PDF roughs out the main ideas of VRM and suggests how information management professionals might contribute to this emerging movement.

(Update 3-22-13: Holy smokes! I didn't realize that Tracy Wolfe, the Mod Librarian, posted a nice writeup of this presentation back in October. I really need to start paying attention to this whole internet thing. I hear it's really taking off.)

Secondly, (and a bit more prosaically) I drafted these notes in Scapple, an awfully interesting brainstorming program under development at Literature and Latte (the fine folks who make Scrivener). Scapple basically lets you enter free-form bits of text on a canvas of whatever size you choose. You can move the bits around to regroup them, and you can drag one text bit over another to relate the two with a dotted line. It was truly one of the best brainstorming experiences I've had on a computer. I ended up using the Scapple document as both my presenter notes and my presentation slide.

If you're like me and you're really not into the linear process of outlining, but you still want to do something like outlining on a computer, I encourage you to give Scapple a try. It's free for a limited time while in Beta. But watch out: you might get hooked.

Term: Information radiator

So, here’s a term that’s new to me:

Alistair.Cockburn.us | Information radiator: "Coined around 2000 while standing in a Thoughtworks office looking at all the paper on the walls around me, ‘information radiator’ refers to a publicly posted display that shows people walking by what is going on. Information radiators are best when they are big, very easy to see (e.g. not online, generally), and change often enough to be worth revisiting."

(Via this GitHub project, which I found by following a link from ADN@berg, which was retweeted by ADN@dalton )

A “clickable” world

Drew Olanoff suggests that Twitter could extend the hashtag idea to make "bits and pieces of data clickable." I'm not a fan of Twitter these days, but I love the idea of incorporating data structure into online content through simple affordances. Ah, so that’s Twitter’s strategy: A “clickable” world - The Next Web:

"By structuring data, Twitter could make its network of information easier to navigate and discover upon. It would also help the company structure its API so that third-party developers wouldn’t have to dig through every single tweet for particular information. I can click or tap around Wikipedia for hours, since everything is linked by its editors. Twitter could engage users in the same way."

A Smart Bike

This is why the future is in metadata.

Phil Windley gets us thinking about what a "smart bike" might do:

Imagine the bike being connected to its manufacturer, the bike store that sold it, and its owner. From its earliest point in being, the bike would be able to keep track of data about itself, things like its specifications, when it was made, and even the provenance of the materials used in its manufacture. The bike would keep track of inventory data like when it was delivered to the bike shop, who assembled it, its price, and when it was bought and by who. And all this would be possible with a personal cloud for a bike.

While Phil's vision could be accomplished without an on-board bike computer, it's hard to imagine a truly useful fire-and-forget system without one, or without a connected infrastructure at the important points of presence: the manufacturer, the store, the bike shop, etc. But this sort of automated administration would be useful for all sorts of things, and I don't see any technical hurdles standing in the way. It's just a matter of building the supporting schemas and software.

(This post was originally published on The Machine That Goes Ping on 5/26/12)

Information Architecture Defined

I ran across this definition of information architecture at IBM's developerWorks site and thought I'd share it here:

Design patterns for information architecture with DITA map domains

Information architecture Information architecture can be summarized as the design discipline that organizes information and its navigation so an audience can acquire knowledge easily and efficiently. For instance, the information architecture of a Web site often provides a hierarchy of Web pages for drilling down from general to detailed information, different types of Web pages for different purposes such as news and documentation, and so on. An information architecture is subliminal when it works well. The lack of information architecture is glaring when it works poorly. The user cannot find information or, even worse, cannot recognize or assimilate information when by chance it is encountered. You probably have experience with Web sites that are poorly organized or uneven in their approach, so that conventions learned in one part of the Web site have no application elsewhere. Extracting knowledge from such information resources is exhausting, and users quickly abandon the effort and seek the information elsewhere. The same issues apply with equal force to other online information systems, such as help systems. The organization and navigation of the information has a dramatic impact on the user's ability to acquire knowledge.

The Overhead Implications of Relationship Management

I've been invited to join Google+, but every time I try to join I get the message that Google has "temporarily exceeded our capacity." So fine. I'll be patient.

In the meantime, I've been reading up on the service. The most fascinating part of it to me is Google Circles, a kind of proto-VRM social graph management feature. Circles lets you define relationships between your contacts so that you can tune your messages and sharing appropriately. Maybe you want to share your pictures of your kids with grandma and grandpa, but not with your drinking buddies. Circles helps you keep those groups straight.

On this week's Hypercritical podcast, John Siracusa pointed out one potential problem with this feature: the interface is cute and effective for groups of 12 or less, but a bit unwieldy for the larger circles of dozens or hundreds you might want to put together for, say, professional networking.

And Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb points out another important usability issue with Circles (and, by extension, any relationship management application): administrative overhead. She points out that your relationships with people may change over time due to things like changing jobs. The group of people that yesterday you categorized as "work colleagues" are today "acquaintances", or something similar.

Or, as Perez says, virtual relationships can become real, as when we meet someone we've been following on Twitter:

But what about when one of those people becomes a real-world friend? Maybe you first run into them at a conference, putting a face to a name. They're now an "Acquaintance." Later, you spend a night out on the town with them, and realize you have a lot in common. You make plans to see each other again, at a non-work event, perhaps. This person has become a "Friend." Depending on how your Google Circles are set up, you may have had to drag-and-drop them into multiple different circles over time, as this relationship changes.

How many people do you have in your address book? Let's say your Google+ Circles include the 150 people that Dunbar says we can maintain stable social relationships with. How much time do you think it would take you to review each of them and make sure that they're organized into the right groups in Circles? And how often would you have to look at that list to make updates? And what if you were to add in people on the fringes - people you might be acquainted with, but don't interact with on a regular basis?

This administrative overhead would be a deal killer for most normal humans. Very few people will want to take the time to maintain this relationship graph on a regular basis. If you're, say, a real estate agent, keeping up with your contact list is a critical business activity. But when you're off the clock, personal contact administration is just a chore, and ignoring that chore can have consequences. If the tools you use to interact online expect you to have a continually pruned and up-to-date relationship graph, the risk of exposing information to the wrong group of people is higher when you don't meet that expectation.

The implication of this observation is that either the tools have to do a lot more to help you manage these changing relationships automatically - perhaps by analyzing where you are, who you're with, and what sort of messages you send via email, twitter, IM, etc. - or our personal relationship management tools are going to remain very simple for the foreseeable future. I suspect the latter is the case. Without having seen it myself, I suspect that Google+ Circles represents the outer edge of what people are willing to do to maintain relationships online. If that's true, then anything that depends on exploiting your social graph will have some built-in limitations that will be very hard to get around.


Proponents of VRM and the Personal Data Ecosystem are facing an uphill battle. In order to move the locus of power away from organizational interests and towards individual interests, the architects of this new space will need to break two very powerful dependencies: corporations' dependency on the income derived from capturing and reusing their users' data, and individuals' dependency on the free or nearly free services that they get in exchange for giving up that data. These two forces form a kind of magnetic attraction to each other, one that won't easily be broken.

This point was driven home to me by this excellent post from Ian Wilker about Sam Harrelson, who deleted his Facebook, Google, and Twitter accounts back in November and wrote this about why he did so:

I don’t blame them. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple etc are corporations. Corporations are inherently out for themselves and their stock holders. I blame myself for falling into the trap of shiny and nifty free/freemium services in exchange for my data and my online identity. I want my children and students to grow up in an era that includes an open web that isn’t based on advertising or 3rd party cookie data mining.

There are few of us who are as committed to the idea of breaking our dependency on these services as Sam is. I can't do it. I might be able to live without Twitter at this point. I've walked up to the line of deleting my Facebook account, but can't pull the trigger. Google is just a bridge too far for me. No way can I replace the convenience of Gmail.

And the punchline is that even Sam can't completely leave Twitter. In a comment to his own post on leaving these services, he writes:

Oddly enough (or not), my 8th graders have been on my case constantly about my Twitter sojourn. So, I'm using the @GriffinScience account as my "teacher"/personal account to keep in contact with the students who rely on their Twitter stream pretty heavily (growing number and I want to encourage their exploration).

Online services like Twtter, Facebook, et al, have become so embedded in our lives that, lacking alternatives, we are left with two painful choices to make: either 1) continue to use these web services and pay the price by contributing to the erosion of our privacy and control, or 2) give up these services and cut ourselves off from a vibrant online society and a powerful set of communication tools.

We need other choices to make. Organizations need alternative ways to make a profit other than capturing and storing user data. Individuals need low-cost, high-value services that come with tools to control the movement and use of their personal data. 

But new services that offer these choices will need to overcome the strong symbiotic bond that currently exists between users and the current set of services. Personal Data service providers will need to offer alternatives that look a lot like the current options and that provide similar levels of utility, while also providing the extra features that move the balance of control back towards individuals. Like Nicorette for smokers or methadone for heroin addicts, Personal Data services need to satisfy current cravings while simultaneously replacing them with something healthier. And that, while not impossible, is going to be a challenge.

The Information Management Elevator Pitch Redux

elevator-buttonsI just came across some notes I took at this year's orientation for Mid-Career MSIMers. "The Question" came up, as it inevitably does in these kinds of gatherings: What is information management? Here are a few snippets I pulled from the answers back in September.

  • "The answer needs to be crafted to the person asking the question." - Mike Crandall
  • "It depends; who are you creating value for? It depends on what YOU want to do with it." - Mario Sanchez
  • "Information management is a bridge between users and technical implementers, between aspiration and reality, between what's unrealized and what's possible." -Unknown
  • "We focus on the critical social, psychological, human side of organization systems." - Bob Mason
  • "We're in the communications business, and our tools are processes as well as technology. We manage the ecology of information." - Bob Larsen
  • "I achieve results efficiently." - Jason Robertson
After a year and a half of study, lots of collaboration, life changes, maturing (a little bit), and a fair bit of rumination on the subject, what are your answers today to that question? What's your elevator pitch these days for information management?

Originally posted at MSIM 2011