RE: What happened to information architecture and design

Subject: RE: What happened to information architecture and design
From: "Janoff, Steven" <Steven -dot- Janoff -at- hologic -dot- com>
To: "mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com" <mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com>, "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "th -at- tino-haida -dot- de" <th -at- tino-haida -dot- de>
Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2016 20:47:35 +0000

Without parsing everything you say, Mark (although I've read it all), I'd say that we are diametrically opposed on this.

There are great teachers as judged by their students, and as borne out by the effects of their teachings on those students, who go on to excel. You've seen the stories.

What makes a great teacher, who has transcended the "curse of knowledge"?

I'm saying technical communicators can achieve an effective conveyance of information -- teaching of sorts -- without succumbing to the curse of knowledge.

My reaction is not to something I've already digested that is being presented to me in perfectly summarized form. Rather, my reaction is to something that conveys new, previously unknown information to me in perfectly digestible form. Kind of like a gourmet meal. What could be wrong with that?

In the 1980's I remember reading parts of the printed Encyclopaedia Britannica and marveling at the knowledge it conveyed to me. In fact, I remember reading one thing where it said that education is the transmission of culture from one generation to the next.

The EB was mostly text but with some wonderful pictures. And I should point out that the few times I've tried to consume the online EB over the last 15 years or so -- and it has been a long time since the last time I looked -- it was not a gratifying experience. But that could just be the bias of having grown up reading physical books and wanting to have that experience of holding it in my hand or having it spread out on a table, turning the pages, looking backward and forward. I certainly miss those days and I'm sure many from that time do.

Great information design and information architecture is about great teaching, great conveyance of knowledge previously unknown, great summation and "delivery" of knowledge previously unknown, not great summarization of knowledge you already have (although there's something nice about that too, and I have a positive reaction when I encounter such a thing -- but not nearly as profound as when the knowledge is new to me).

I think it's the wonder of being a child and exploring your world that comes closest to the feeling I'm talking about. When I was a little kid and looked at books and discovered the stars and planets, the plants and trees in my world, all the different things that made up the world and beyond. It's the joy of living.

You know, maybe your job doesn't allow that, but that doesn't mean those things aren't out there and that they cannot inform your work -- they can. In my view it's better to acquire such skills second-hand than not to acquire them at all.

Steve

--
On Tuesday, March 29, 2016 1:13 PM, Mark Baker wrote:

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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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
RE: What happened to information architecture and design: From: mbaker

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