RE: What happened to information architecture and design

Subject: RE: What happened to information architecture and design
From: <mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com>
To: "'Janoff, Steven'" <Steven -dot- Janoff -at- hologic -dot- com>, <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, <th -at- tino-haida -dot- de>
Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2016 16:13:18 -0400

I tend to share your view of infographics. I think they are in many ways the
product of the confusion between summarization and explanation. This
confusion is a product of the Curse of Knowledge
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_of_knowledge). Once we understand an
idea we look for the perfect summary that encapsulates what we know or
believe. Infographics can be perfect for this. But the thing that summarizes
perfectly what you already know is not the thing that explains it well to
someone who does not yet know.

Infographics can be great at visualizing information. The march of the Grand
Army infographic that Lin cites is a good example. But alone it does not
tell the story. It just gives a sense of proportion to the numbers involved
and some of the relationships between them.

Finally, infographics can be effective propaganda and marketing tools,
because they can make disparate and poorly sourced bits of data appear
cohesive, integrated, and comprehensive. But this is not the same thing at
all as explaining something.

You say: " To me it's when I see a documentation piece that presents the
perfect combination of text and images to immediately convey information and
learning to me, especially in a way that not only do I remember it for days
or weeks afterward, but it leaves such an impression that I just can't stop
thinking about how good it is -- and I might continue to be impressed even
years later."

I would suggest that that is exactly the feeling that you get when you see a
piece of information that perfectly sums up what you already know. It is why
the curse of knowledge is so seductive and strikes so quickly. Once you have
seen that perfect summary, you can't imagine how anyone could see it and not
instantly understand. But that summary is like a flag on the top of Everest.
Seeing the flag does not get you to the summit. You have to climb it for
yourself.

But this also explains why it is so hard to find examples of content like
this. It is because as perfect as they seem to those who know, they are
opaque and baffling to those who don't yet understand.

Getting to understanding is hard. John Carrol called it the paradox of
sensemaking. The systematic and correct exposition of a subject does not
actually help you make sense of that subject. You bring a set of baggage to
the process of sensemaking, a set of tacit ideas about how the world works
that you don't even recognize that you have and that shape how you
understand all the information you receive. You have to break down the old
world view to make room for the new one, and that is arduous work.

For this reason, I think we have the wrong approach to information
architecture. We tend to build architectures that are logical top-down
expositions or classifications of a subject from the point of view of an
expert. They are summarization masquerading as explanation. They are steeped
in the curse of knowledge. Like the quest for a great infographic, the quest
for a great information architecture is frustrated by the same problem: they
don't work well for those they are supposed to serve, the outsiders who do
not yet understand. (Which is not to say they are not an improvement on the
chaos they often replace.)

To me, a superior information architecture is one that allows the reader to
chart their own course through the content as they fight their personal
battle with the paradox of sensemaking. I call this bottom-up information
architecture. It is why I say that every page is page one. Because each
reader starts at a different point and stumbles through the content in a
different way.

A good bottom up information architecture features three things:

* Good search.
* Structured self-contained, highly cohesive, loosely coupled
topics/pages/articles (Every Page is Page One)
* Rich linking to enable the reader to follow whatever path they need to
in their unique struggle with the paradox of sensemaking.

Great examples of bottom up architectures include Wikipedia, Stack Overflow,
and Amazon. I don't know of too many in the tech comm space, though I do
list a few here: http://everypageispageone.com/examples-of-eppo-topics/. But
a bottom up information architecture is not one you can stand back and take
in with a glance. You can't prove its greatness from examining its surface.
You can only discover it by actually using the content to solve real-world
problems.

Finally, both the paradox of sensemaking and the curse of knowledge are
founded in the fundamental fact that we understand the world in terms of
stories. Our language consists of references to stories that we assume our
reader knows. The curse of knowledge is that once we internalize a story, we
can't think in terms that don't include that story. The paradox of
sensemaking is the we lack some stories on which the thing we are trying to
master is based, or that the documentation of that thing assumes we know,
and we are blinded by the stories that we already know that are either wrong
or not applicable.

Great communication is about telling the right stories. But the right story
is different on every occasion and for every reader. This is why there is no
perfect document, no perfect infographic, no perfect information
architecture. We should be writing content and building architectures that
accept that this is so, rather than trying to achieve the kind of perfection
of communication and organization that really only works for the person who
created it. It is more like building an efficient transit system than
building a beautiful monument. Its greatness is in its efficacy, not its
beauty.

I will be speaking about Stories and the Curse of Knowledge at Spectrum in
April:
http://stc-rochester.org/spectrum/presentation/its-stories-all-the-way-down/

Mark

-----Original Message-----
From: Janoff, Steven [mailto:Steven -dot- Janoff -at- hologic -dot- com]
Sent: Tuesday, March 29, 2016 2:44 PM
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com; mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com; th -at- tino-haida -dot- de
Subject: RE: What happened to information architecture and design

This is provocative information and I hope that line of thought continues.

At the same time, I want to bring back a parallel thread on the purpose of
the original post, which was to try to find examples of good or great
information design and information architecture in perhaps publicly
available tech comms publications (print, web, mobile, etc.).

I'll bet there are a few infographics out there that are extra-special and
really encapsulate what fantastic information design/architecture is all
about -- I haven't seen them yet. I can find a hundred infographics not a
single one of which seems necessary or even helpful.

What is it about good information design or good information architecture
that galvanizes you?

To me it's when I see a documentation piece that presents the perfect
combination of text and images to immediately convey information and
learning to me, especially in a way that not only do I remember it for days
or weeks afterward, but it leaves such an impression that I just can't stop
thinking about how good it is -- and I might continue to be impressed even
years later.

I guess it's about how the brain works and how it perceives, assimilates,
and organizes information.

I wish I had an example to link to, of what I'm talking about, but I don't
have one handy. I posted one a few years back (map of the Internet) but it
looks very uninspiring now, after everything that's flowed through our minds
in the past 4 years.

I want to see what's out there that's really good.

Thanks,

Steve

On Tuesday, March 29, 2016 8:14 AM, Mark Baker wrote:

The concept of semantics has generated endless confusion over the years.
...


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Follow-Ups:

References:
What happened to information architecture and design: From: Janoff, Steven
Re: What happened to information architecture and design: From: th
RE: What happened to information architecture and design: From: mbaker
RE: What happened to information architecture and design: From: Janoff, Steven

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