Postbox: good info

Crikey, it’s a very long photo of a postbox – read on for some thoughts about information architecture and the Royal Mail.

From a distance

  • Everyone knows what a postbox looks like – if you’re looking for one, they’re easy to find
  • Anyone who isn’t looking for a postbox can ignore the postbox at no cost to their time and attention
  • Most local people will remember where this one is even if they’ve never used it – so they know where to go when they do need it, or when others do. (Top British Question: “Excuse me, but do you know if there’s a postbox nearby?”)

Close up

When you want it, when you’ve found it, it’s got all the info in the right place, in the order you’ll ask for it:

  • Is this postbox in use? (answer implied)
  • When’s the next collection?
  • What’s the latest I can drop my letter today and have it collected? (If I’m happy with this, I can stop reading straight away).
  • If I’m in a hurry, where’s the nearest place I can go for an earlier collection?
  • If I’ve missed that too, what’s my last chance at a collection?
  • If I have other questions, where can I find answers or who can I call?*

*With apologies that I was in too much of a hurry to architect the second photo well enough to include everything!

Peter Morville on Category and Taxonomy (1)

While findability comes first, we must also remember that categories are about more than retrieval. Classification helps our users to understand.

Through splitting, lumping and labeling, we reveal choices and invite questions.

Of course, all taxonomies are imperfect, as is the language they’re built on… like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out. Some things, like luggage, get lost by accident, while others – people, places, ideas – are buried by design.

Either way, each glitch in the matrix subtly changes understanding and behaviour, which is why this work has moral weight. Classification has consequences, as Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star argue in Sorting Things Out:

“Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing – indeed, it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous – not bad, but dangerous.”

Peter MorvilleIntertwingled (Amazon link here)

Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading

… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.

Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?

Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.

Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.

And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.

All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.

These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable

Structure Counts: Information Architecture reading list and who’s who

I know almost nothing about Information Architecture, but I’ve been thinking a lot about structuring information recently.

Here’s the metaphor: Jacques Carelman‘s famous Coffee pot for Masochists.


See Impossible Objects at It’s Nice That


All the pieces are there, but it just. doesn’t. work.

We’ve all used badly put together tools, instruction manuals, software, doors. At best they’re slower and frustrate us. At worst, they cause us to lose out or harm us.

It’s the same with ideas. Whether we’re communicating simply to transfer knowledge or for emotional impact (your priorities may vary, but if you want to do either you really need to be doing both), the way they’re put together counts.

Let’s do a Zinnser on that last paragraph.

It’s the same with ideas: the way they’re put together counts. The structure of your ideas is crucial whether you’re communicating to transfer knowledge or to create an emotional impact, and really, if you’re serious about doing either you really need to be doing both.

Better? I think it’s a bit better. Must try harder.

So without further ado, here’s my Information Architecture Reading list:

Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond, 4th Ed

 by Louis RosenfeldPeter Morville and Jorge Arango


Love that polar bear

The introduction and first chapter that are included in the kindle sample are pretty compelling, but I can’t find an short quotation from it that doesn’t make it sounds boring, so I won’t.

Oh okay, I think this bit is cool:

[The] abundance and pervasiveness [of information] makes our lives better in many ways, but it also introduces new challenges. With so much information available in so many places, it can sometimes be difficult to cut through the noise to find the information you need and understand it once you have found it.

Information architecture (IA) is a design discipline that is focused on making information findable and understandable. Because of this, it is uniquely well suited to address these challenges. IA allows us to think about problems through two important perspectives: that information products and services are perceived by people as places made of information, and that these information environments can be organised for optimum findability and understandability.

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It’s possible that I like this book because it makes me feel like I’m in the matrix.

Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything

by Peter Morville

Big in Japan:

I’ve started this, and referenced Peter before. I thought I’d shared a link to a talk about the book on youtube, but can’t find the post, so here it is:

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The Information: A History, a Theory,  a Flood

by James Gleick

So far: fascinating. Need to think more about it to say how it’s helped and changed my thinking – watch out for a future post.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works 2nd Ed

by Ginny Redish

On the strength of the couple of chapters that Ginny shares for free on her website I paid £25 for this. It’s worth it for the first few chapters alone.

Don’t Make Me Think

by Steve Krug

It’s brilliant and funny. More from me about him here.

The Design of Everyday Things

by Don Norman

Look! It’s the coffee pot. This book is how I know about the coffee pot for masochists in the first place. It’s supposed to be brilliant, and it’s good so far.

Information: A Very Short Introduction

by Luciano Floridi

Stumbled across it on Amazon just now. Middling reviews, but Floridi directs a lab and straddles multiple chairs at Oxford; has well appointed office; wears tweed and high cheekbones). Might be a good starting point?

Two Websites

A Brief History of Information at The Register. At least one of my best tech friends reads this site often, so I expect this article is good. It’s on the list.

historyofinformation.com

HistoryofInformation.com is designed to help you follow the development of information and media, and attitudes about them, from the beginning of records to the near present. Containing annotated references to discoveries, developments of a socialscientific, or technological nature, as well as references to physical books, documents, artifactsart works, and to websites and other digital media, it arranges, both chronologically and thematically, selected historical examples and selected recent developments of the methods used to recorddistribute, exchange, organizestore, and search information. The database allows you to approach the topics in a wide variety of ways.

Pow.

Right, almost time to go – quit while you’re only five books behind and all that…

Surprise Bonus

Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places

by Jorge Arango

This guy is supposed to be great, and I like the cover. He’s an actual (bricks and mortar) architect who became an information architect

(Information) literacy

Unlike “the three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic which are woven within the K-12 curriculum, information literacy falls through the cracks. It doesn’t fit into any one subject area, and teachers fail to include in class. And it’s an big problem, because the internet makes literacy more important, not less.

When I was a kid, I had a mom, a dad, and a single volume of the encyclopedia, and I trusted them to answer my questions. Now Google offers us billions of answers, but the difficult question is trust…

Evaluating accuracy, objectivity, currency and authority is easier said than done.

Peter MorvilleIntertwingled

This is good, and true, and important – and I recommend the book.

But it also misses a trick: what Peter Morville describes so well in Intertwingled mostly falls within the scope of a good definition of literacy.

There is no literacy that doesn’t involve managing information. I’ve described literacy as:

… being able to read with fluency and with critical understanding, and to write both to communicate and to think.

That’s concise, but these information skills – understanding structures and relationships within and between pieces of information, and deconstructing or assembling them in a way that suits your purpose  – are key components of critical understanding, and of communicating.

We might need to extend the concepts of reading and writing to cover new skills, and the relative importance of organising information might have grown – but we should be teaching these skills wherever we’re teaching people to read and write.

And we always should have been, because they’ve always been vital.

Your role (1)

If you’re leading an organisation or a team, a big part of your job is to help others to do their jobs.

The reference escapes me, but I’m pretty sure Peter Drucker used the phrase “to make the work meaningful and the worker effective.”

Making work meaningful is about vision. It means making sure people understand why what they do is important. What’s the point? Who are you there to serve? What difference are you making as a whole, and what difference will it make if a team member does this particular job and does it well?

Making the worker effective is about helping your colleagues to do their roles as well as they can. At its core, the best way to do this seems to be to equip them with useful tools. This means stuff like computers, vehicles, resources. It means equipping them with processes that work – “this is how we train a teacher to teach reading”, “this is how we respond to an email and process a sale”. And most useful of all, it means equipping your team with the tools to make decisions (often these come back to your vision and values) and giving them the information they need to make new tools.

There’s a hierarchy in there somewhere.

Intertwingled


In the era of ecosystems, seeing the big picture is more important than ever, and less likely. It’s not simply that we’re forced into little boxes by organizational silos and professional specialization. We like it in there. We feel safe. But we’re not. This is no time to stick to your knitting. We must go from boxes to arrows. Tomorrow belongs to those who connect.


Peter MorvilleIntertwingled: Information Changes Everything

Great title, Peter!