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 18:49:35 -0400

Oh, I don't see diametric opposition here. You say:

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

I agree. In fact, this is central to everything that I believe about being a
great communicator. A great communicator is not a wizard with words or one
with perfect grammar. A great communicator is one who understands and can
effectively combat the curse of knowledge. One of the key reasons that I
believe strongly in structured writing and its power to improve content is
that subject domain structures can encapsulate -- partly -- some of the
things we discover from combating the curse of knowledge and connecting with
our readers, helping the great communicator be great consistently, and the
less effective communicator be more effective.

But there are limits to this. We can overcome the curse of knowledge, but
not the paradox of sense making. That is unique to each reader and each
reader's burden to bear. I agree that it is possible to have wonderful
information experiences, moments when some piece of writing opens up the
world to you. And the work of great communicators that is far more likely to
provoke those moment in you.

But I would also point out that those moments do not come at the same time
and in the same way for every reader. We may have many readers agreeing that
a certain writer is a great communicator who gives those marvelous moments
of enlightenment. But other readers will disagree, will find that writer
opaque or pedantic, or dull. Just read a few reviews on almost any book on
amazon or elsewhere and you will see this pattern.

Those great moments of enlightenment come when a mind with the right
preparation meets a great piece of writing. They occur when a mind that has
overcome almost all the paradox of sense making meets an piece of writing
that has overcome the curse of knowledge. And those moment of enlightenment
are so powerful, so wonderful, that we tend to credit the text with almost
supernatural power of exposition. They have the power and the wonder of a
first kiss.

But we are never going to get universal agreement on which content produces
that moment because that moment requires the prepared mind as much as it
requires the great content. It is also why those wonderful moments of
enlightenment grow fewer as we age, and why if we go back to the works we
loved in childhood they often, though not always, fail to provide the same
thrill on second reading. If you had come to that content a little earlier
in your development, you would not have been ready for it and would have
found it opaque. If you had come by a different route, you might a found
your enlightenment in a different work. And if you had, and then encountered
the work the delivered enlightenment, you might well have found it obvious
and dull. Only one kiss can ever be your first kiss.

Think of it this way. We tell stories by using language (or images) that
evoke other stories. The success of communication depends on the other
person instantly recognizing the stories we refer to. If you have to tell
those stories explicitly, you tell them using words to evoke other stories.
It is an entirely fractal process. But words don't always evoke the same
stories in different people. So we here a story and we understand it
differently from what the writer intended because the words they used evoked
different stories for us. Herein lies the cause of most arguments, and the
reason why conversation is often a more satisfactory form or communication
than a book.

So the curse of knowledge consists in assuming that your words will always
evoke the same stories in everyone, and conquering the curse of knowledge
means recognizing that they will not, and choosing different words or
telling the underlying stories in full to better communicate to a particular
audience.

The paradox of sense making consists in seeing the world in terms of a set
of stories that don't match the task you are attempting and the content you
are reading. You have to go find the stories you are missing, and at first
you are not even sure which you are missing or where you might find them.

A great communicator can reach more people more effectively by telling the
right stories in the right words to reach an audience with a particular
background. At the same time, they can't unpack and explicitly tell every
story in the fractal pyramid of stories on which every story rests because
such content would be exhaustingly, if not infinitely, long. A fifty page
recipe for Duck a la Orange that unpacked every technique and assumption in
the normal recipe would be unusable for both for the novice and the expert
cook. There is a limit to who even the greatest of content can reach.

And that is the virtue of hypertext, because it can allow the reader to
prepare themselves for the moment of enlightenment, and then present to them
the content that will deliver enlightenment to them once they are prepared
for it. This absolutely requires great writers who can overcome the curse of
knowledge, and that includes overcoming it by designing an information
architecture that works for the person who is still preparing themselves for
the moment of enlightenment.

And why does so much communication theory fall by the wayside? In part it
may be because the theory itself was infected with the curse of knowledge.
In large partly it is because the theory did not in itself solve the curse
of knowledge, and so the attempt to follow it was infected by the curse of
knowledge and did not produce consistently superior results, causing it to
be abandoned. The fault may not have been in the theory but in the
execution, but the result is the same. If the attempt to use the theory does
not result in demonstrably superior results, even for reasons unrelated to
the theory itself, then it does not deliver consistent results in the real
world.

In many ways, I think, these theories tended to solve the easy part of the
problem. They modeled the things you would do if you did not suffer from the
curse of knowledge. They were not wrong. But the attempt to follow their
patterns, without actually conquering the curse of knowledge, does not
produce good results.

My own approach to structured writing will, of course, be subject to the
same forces. But I don't pretend it can make the mediocre communicator
great. I claim that it can make the great communicator, and the great
communication teams, more consistent, and enable them to improve the
performance of those they work with. It can't and won't overcome the curse
of knowledge all by itself.

Mark

-----Original Message-----
From: Janoff, Steven [mailto:Steven -dot- Janoff -at- hologic -dot- com]
Sent: Tuesday, March 29, 2016 4:48 PM
To: mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com; techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com; th -at- tino-haida -dot- de
Subject: RE: What happened to information architecture and design

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
RE: What happened to information architecture and design: From: Janoff, Steven

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