Language is Infrastructure at IA Summit 2014

I presented this talk at the IA Summit in San Diego this year, back in the spring. I’m adding it to inkblurt so it’ll have a home here, but I already wrote about it over at TUG a few months ago.

It’s all about how language makes stuff in the world that we need to treat like serious parts of our environment — material for design — and how there’s no such thing as “just semantics.”

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The World is the Screen

Throughout 2013 and part of 2014, I gave various versions of a talk entitled “The World is the Screen”. (The subtitle varied.)

The general contention of the talk: as planners and makers of digital things and places that are increasingly woven into the fabric of the world around us, we have to expand our focus to understanding the whole environment that people inhabit, not just specific devices and interfaces.

As part of that mission, we need to bring a more rigorous perspective to understanding our materials. Potters and masons and painters, as they mature in their work, come to understand their materials better and more deeply than they would expect the users of their creations to understand them. I argue that our primary material is information … but we don’t have a good, shared concept of what we mean when we say “information.”

Rather than trying to define information in just one way, I picked three major ways in which information affects our world, and the characteristics behind each of those modes. Ultimately, I’m trying to create some foundations for maturing how we understand our work, and how it is more about environments than objects (though objects are certainly critical in the context of the whole).

Anyway … the last version of the talk I gave was at ConveyUX in Seattle. It is a shorter version, but I think it’s the most concisely clear one. So I’m embedding it below. [Other, prior (and longer) versions are also on Speakerdeck – one from IA Summit 2013, and one from Blend Conference 2013. I also posted about it at The Understanding Group.]

Meanwhile, On the Internet

I haven’t been inkblurting much here for a few months. There are a few reasons.

1. I’ve been writing and revising a book that I’ve been hammering away at for the last two years. I started writing it based on hunches about its subject, and vaguely literary aspirations of a “thought piece” sort of nonfiction tome that would be just so fascinating… only to discover that I really didn’t know what the hell I was writing about, and had to learn some actual science and stuff before I could say anything with any credibility. I mean, I’ve been doing information architecture and interaction design for a pretty long time, so I had that credibility, but when it comes to things like embodied cognition or how language works, well … it feels like I’ve been going back to grad school. But I’m glad I did the work, and it’s turning out nicely, at least from what I can tell from my bleary-eyed perspective, knotted like a homunculus in my digital bunker, gutting my overlong, meandering first draft, and wrangling what’s left into something I hope will do the job. Writing, man. Whaddya do?

2. I’ve also been posting the occasional bit over at the blog for my delightful employer, TUG (The Understanding Group). A few of them have included some thoughts on how no project is ever just what we see on its face, so we should design the “meta” side of the project as much as the thing the project is supposedly for. Another on how information architecture and business strategy have a long relationship, that’s becoming even more interdependent. And a couple of posts about stuff I presented at Midwest UX, including a workshop I co-led with colleague Dan Eizans, on Making Places with IA & Content Strategy, and my solo talk about maps and territories and how language creates places. I’m fairly obsessed with this whole language-as-infrastructure thing, which is leading me to also do a talk on that topic at IA Summit this March in San Diego.

3. Speaking of IA Summit, I’m proud and pleased to be co-teaching a new workshop there with the brilliant and wise Jorge Arango. It’s about Information Architecture Essentials, and proceeds will go to the Information Architecture Institute. We hope the content will be enlightening and useful, and a nice overview of some basic IA stuff, but also where IA is headed as a practice & discipline. We think old hands will get something out of it, not just newcomers. Fear not, although there will be “theory,” we’re packing it with practical goodness, and structuring it along a typical project timeline. Groundedness FTW.

Context Design Talk for World IA Day Ann Arbor

The 2013 World IA Day was a huge success. Only its 2nd year in existence, and it had big crowds in 20+ locations (15 official). Congratulations to everyone involved in organizing the day, and to the intrepid board members of the IA Institute who decided to risk transforming the more US-based IDEA conference into this terrific, global, community-driven event.

I was fortunate to be asked to speak at the event in Ann Arbor, MI, where I talked about how information shapes context — the topic I’ve been writing a book about for a while now. I’ll probably continue having new permutations of this talk for quite some time, but here’s a snapshot at least, describing some central ideas I’m fleshing out in the book. I’m calling this “beta 2” — since it has somewhat different and/or updated content vs the one I did for CHI Atlanta back in the fall of 2012.

Video and Slides-with-notes embedded below. Enjoy!

 


 

The Composition of Context: a workshop proposal

Andrea Resmini and co-organizers of the upcoming workshop on Architectures of Meaning (part of the Pervasive Computing conference at Newcastle University in the UK) asked me to participate this year. I’m not able to be there in person, unfortunately, but plan to join remotely. What follows is the “paper” I’m presenting. It’s not a fully fledged academic piece of writing — more like a practitioner-theorist missive.

I’m sharing it here because others may be curious, and it’s also the best summary I’ve done to date of the ideas in the book I’m writing on IA and designing context.

This is a straight dump from MS Word (with a few tweaks). Caveat emptor.

 

Information Architecture and the Composition of Context

Andrew Hinton

Final Draft for Architectures of Meaning Workshop

June 18, 2012

 

Introduction

We lack fully articulated models for context, yet information architecture is especially significant in how context is created, changed or communicated in digital-based information environments. This thesis proposes some principles, models and foundational theories for the beginnings of a framework of context and proposes composition as a rubric for tying these ideas together into IA practice.

The thesis follows a line of reasoning thus:

Context is constructed.

There’s a deep and wide intellectual history around the topic of context. Suffice it to say that there are many layers and threads in the ongoing conversation among experts on the subject. Even though all those threads don’t agree on every point, they add up to some generally accepted ideas, such as:

  • Context is both internal and external. Our minds and bodies determine and influence how we perceive reality, and that internal experience is affected by external objects and interactions. Both affect one another to the point where the distinction between “inner” and “outer” is almost entirely academic.
  • Context has both stable and fluid characteristics. Certainly there are some elements of our lives that are stable enough to be considered “persistent.” But our interactions with (and understanding of) those elements still can make them mean something very different to us from moment to moment. Context exists along an undulating spectrum between those poles.
  • Context is social. Our experience of context emerges from a cognitive history as social beings, with mental models, languages, customs — really pretty much everything — originating from our interactions with others of our kind.

Context is not so simple as “object A is in surrounding circumstance X” — the roles are interchangeable and interdependent. This is why context is so hard to get our hands around as a topic.

(In particular, I’m leaning on the work of Paul Dourish, Bonnie Nardi, Jean Lave, Marcia Bates and Lucy Suchman.)

Context is about understanding.

This phenomenological & post-modern frame for context necessarily complicates the topic — not to point out these complexities would keep us from getting at a real comprehension of how context works.

Still, it can be helpful to have a simple model to use as a compass in this Escher-like landscape.  Hence, the following:

Context is conventionally defined as the interplay between several elements:

  • Situation: the circumstances that comprise the setting (place, time, surroundings, actions, etc.). The concept of “place” figures very heavily here.
  • Subject (Event/Person/Statement/Idea): the thing that is in the situation, and that is the subject of the attempted understanding.
  • Understanding: an apprehension of the true nature of the subject, through awareness and/or comprehension of the surrounding situation.
  • Agent: the individual who is trying to understand the subject and situation (this element is implied in most definitions, rather than called out explicitly).

Context, then, is principally about understanding. There is no need for discussion of context unless someone (agent) is trying to understand a subject in a given situation. That is, context does not exist out in the world as a thing in itself. It emerges from the act of seeking to understand.

This also forms a useful, simple model for talking about context and parsing the elements in a given scenario. However, it gets more complicated due to the ideas, mentioned above, about how context is constructed. Just a few of the wrinkles that come to light:

  • There can be multiple subjects, even if we understand them by focusing on (or foregrounding) one at a time.
  • The subject is also always part of the situation, and any of the circumstances could easily be one or more subjects.
  • In fact, in order to understand the situation, it has to be focused on as a subject in its own right.
  • All of these elements affect one another.
  • Importantly, the subject may be the agent. And there can be multiple agents, where another observer-agent may be able to understand the situation better than the subject-agent, because the subject-agent “can’t see the forest for the trees.” In design for a “user” this is an especially important point, because the user is both agent and subject — a person trying to understand and even control his or her own context.

As you can see, what looks like a simple grammar of what makes context can actually expose a lot of complexity. But this simple model of elements helps us at least start to have a framework for picking apart scenarios to figure out who is perceiving what, which elements are affecting others, and where understanding is and isn’t happening.

In order to unravel this massive tapestry, we have to grab a thread; a good one to grab is what we mean by “understanding.”

And that means we have to understand cognition, which is the engine we use for understanding much of anything.

Continue reading “The Composition of Context: a workshop proposal”

The Contexts We Make

I’ve been presenting on this topic for quite a while. It’s officially an obsession. And I’m happy to say there’s actually a lot of attention being paid to context lately, and that is a good thing. But it’s mainly from the perspective of designing for existing contexts in the world, and accommodating or responding appropriately to them.

For example, the ubicomp community has been researching this issue for many years — if computing is no longer tied to a few discrete devices and is essentially happening everywhere, in all sorts of parts of our environment, how can we make sure it responds in relevant, even considerate ways to its users?

Likewise, the mobile community has been abuzz about the context of particular devices, and how to design code and UI that shapes the experience based on the device’s form factor, and how to balance the strengths of native apps vs web apps.

And the Content Strategy practitioner community has been adroitly handling the challenges of writing for the existing audience, situational & media contexts that content may be published or syndicated into.

All of these are worthy subjects for our attention, and very complex challenges for us to figure out. I’m on board with any and all of these efforts.

But I genuinely think there’s a related, but different issue that is still a blind spot: we don’t only have to worry about designing for existing contexts, we also have to understand that we are often designing context itself.

In essence, we’ve created a new dimension, an information dimension that we walk around in simultaneously with the one where we evolved as a species; and this dimension can significantly change the meaning of our actions and interactions, with the change of a software rule, a link name or a label. There are no longer clear boundaries between “here” and “there” and reality is increasingly getting bent into disorienting shapes by this pervasive layer of language & soft-machinery.

My thinking on this central point has evolved over the last four to five years, since I first started presenting on the topic publicly. I’ve since been including a discussion of context design in almost every talk or article I’ve written.

I’m posting below my 10-minute “punchy idea” version developed for the WebVisions conference (iterations of this were given in Portland, Atlanta & New York City).

I’m also working on a book manuscript on the topic, but more on that later as it takes more shape (and as the publisher details are ironed out).

I’m really looking forward to delving into the topic with the attention and breadth it needs for the book project (with trepidation & anxiety, but mostly the positive kind ;-).

Of course, any and all suggestions, thoughts, conversations or critiques are welcome.

PS: as I was finishing up this post, John Seely Brown (whom I consider a patron saint) tweeted this bit: “context is something we constantly underplay… with today’s tools we can now create context almost as easily as content.” Synchronicity? More likely just a result of his writing soaking into my subconscious over the last 12-13 years. But quite validating to read, regardless 🙂

I’m pasting the SlideShare-extracted notes below for reference.
Continue reading “The Contexts We Make”

Links, Maps and Habitats

To celebrate the recent publication of Resmini & Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture,” I’m reprinting, here, my contribution to the book. Thank you, Andrea & Luca, for asking me to add my own small part to the work!

It’s strange how, over time, some things that were once rare and wondrous can become commonplace and practically unnoticed, even though they have as much or more power as they ever had. Consider things like these: fire; the lever; the wheel; antibiotics; irrigation; agriculture; the semiconductor; the book. Ironically, it’s their inestimable value that causes these inventions to be absorbed into culture so thoroughly that they become part of the fabric of societies adopting them, where their power is taken for granted.

Add to that list two more items, one very old and one very new: the map and the hyperlink.

Those of us who are surrounded by inexpensive maps tend to think of them as banal, everyday objects – a commoditized utility. And the popular conception of mapmaking is that of an antiquated, tedious craft, like book binding or working a letter-press – something one would only do as a hobby, since after all, the whole globe has been mapped by satellites at this point; and we can generate all manner of maps for free from the Internet.

But the ubiquity of maps also shows us how powerful they remain. And the ease with which we can take them for granted belies the depth of skill, talent and dedicated focus it takes for maps (and even mapping software and devices) to be designed and maintained. It’s easy to scoff at cartography as a has-been discipline – until you’re trying to get somewhere, or understand a new place, and the map is poorly made.

Consider as well the hyperlink. A much younger invention than the map, the hyperlink was invented in the mid-1960s. For years it was a rare creature living only in technology labs, until around 1987 when it was moderately popularized in Apple’s HyperCard application. Even then, it was something used mainly by hobbyists and educators and a few interactive-fiction authors; a niche technology. But when Tim Berners-Lee placed that tiny creature in the world-wide substrate of the Internet, it bloomed into the most powerful cultural engine in human history. 

And yet, within only a handful of years, people began taking the hyperlink for granted, as if it had always been around. Even now, among the digital classes, mention of “the web” is often met with a sniff of derision. “Oh that old thing — that’s so 1999.” And, “the web is obsolete – what matters now are mobile devices, augmented reality, apps and touch interfaces.” 

One has to ask, however, what good would any of the apps, mobile devices and augmented reality be without digital links? 

Where these well-meaning people go wrong is to assume the hyperlink is just a homely little clickable bit of text in a browser. The browser is an effective medium for hyperlinked experience, but it’s only one of many. The hyperlink is more than just a clicked bit of text in a browser window — it’s a core element for the digital dimension; it’s the mechanism that empowers regular people to point across time and space and suddenly be in a new place, and to create links that point the way for others as well. 

Once people have this ability, they absorb it into their lives. They assume it will be available to them like roads, or language, or air. They become so used to having it, they forget they’re using it — even when dazzled by their shiny new mobile devices, augmented reality software and touch-screen interfaces. They forget that the central, driving force that makes those technologies most meaningful is how they enable connections — to stories, knowledge, family, friends. And those connections are all, essentially, hyperlinks: pointers to other places in cyberspace. Links between conversations and those conversing — links anybody can create for anybody to use. 

This ability is now so ubiquitous, it’s virtually invisible. The interface is visible, the device is tangible, but the links and the teeming, semantic latticeworks they create are just short of corporeal. Like gravity, we can see its physical effects, but not the force itself.  And yet these systems of links — these architectures of information — are now central to daily life. Communities rely on them to constructively channel member activity. Businesses trust systems of links to connect their customers with products and their business partners with processes. People depend on them for the most mundane tasks — like checking the weather — to the most important, such as learning about a life-changing diagnosis. 

In fact, the hyperlink and the map have a lot in common. They both describe territories and point the way through them. They both present information that enables exploration and discovery. But there is a crucial difference: maps describe a separate reality, while hyperlinks create the very territory they describe. 

Each link is a new path — and a collection of paths is a new geography. The meaningful connections we create between ourselves and the things in our lives were once merely spoken words, static text or thoughts sloshing around in our heads. Now they’re structural — instantiated as part of a digital infrastructure that’s increasingly interwoven with our physical lives. When you add an old friend on a social network, you create a link unlike any link you would have made by merely sending a letter or calling them on the phone. It’s a new path from the place that represents your friend to the place that represents you. Two islands that were once related only in stories and memories, now connected by a bridge. 

Or think of how you use a photograph. Until recently, it was something you’d either frame and display on a shelf, carry in your wallet, or keep stored in a closet. But online you can upload that photo where it has its own unique location. By creating the place, you create the ability to link to it — and the links create paths, which add to the the ever-expanding geography of cyberspace. 

Another important difference between the hyperlinks and traditional maps is that digital space allows us to create maps with conditional logic. We can create rules that cause a place to respond to, interact with, and be rearranged by its inhabitants. A blog can allow links to add comments or have them turned off; a store can allow product links to rearrange themselves on shelves in response to the shopper’s area of interest; a phone app can add a link to your physical location or not, at the flick of a settings switch. These are architectural structures for informational mediums; the machinery that enables everyday activity in the living web of the networked dimension. 

The great challenge of information architecture is to design mechanisms that have deep implications for human experience, using a raw material no one can see except in its effects. It’s to create living, jointed, functioning frameworks out of something as disembodied as language, and yet create places suitable for very real, physical purposes.  Information architecture uses maps and paths to create livable habitats in the air around us, folded into our daily lives — a new geography somehow separate, yet inseparable, from what came before.