The City is not a sitemap*
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The City is not a sitemap*

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What is a city? How is it organized? How do we make sense of the city? Join OpenRoad VP Gordon Ross as he covers some of the challenges faced in attempting to design information architectures for ...

What is a city? How is it organized? How do we make sense of the city? Join OpenRoad VP Gordon Ross as he covers some of the challenges faced in attempting to design information architectures for civic websites. Based on his research for the City of Vancouver's web redesign project, Gordon will share observations, conclusions, and IA design implications. In contemplating the task of civic IA, Gordon seeks to describe the limits of our abilities as designers to classify and categorize and invites IA's and designers to look for new methods and inspiration to reflect the richness and complexity of the real world in our designs. (*with apologies to Christopher Alexander)

This talk was given at the IA Institute's World IA Day 2012 in Vancouver, Canada. @WIAD_Vancouver / #WIAD

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  • As information architects and interaction designers, I think it's safe to say that many of you in the audience would agree that we get to work on some pretty challenging problems. And from the IA types that I meet locally and at conferences I've attended, it also strikes me that many of us find deep satisfaction in the work - it often has a great personal resonance with us. A meaningful problem that connects with a part of who we are, not just something technically demanding. 
  • Anyone else seen this? Hands up for those of you who have worked on a redesign project in the past couple of years that mirrors this design pattern?
  • So why is this is a problem? What's so bad about designing a website around an organizational structure, especially a big organization like the City?
  • Because citizens don't get it. By organizing information in this matter, citizens need to understand the design of the City's bureacracy in order to navigate to the right spot in order to engage with the City in the provision of a service or information.  And, most citizens don't appear to be terribly interested in making this investment in learning how their local government organizes itself. They have places to go, things to do, people to see, jobs to get done, families to raise, traffic to battle on a daily basis, garbage to put out in their alley, parking tickets to pay, and a plethora of other things that constitute their daily urban existence. Learning about the City's org chart doesn't rank high as a priority. So how do we categorize information in a way that people understand it? Isn't that *the question* when it comes to all of our design projects? 
  • Hold that thought. I want to take a quick detour here. 
  • Chicken, Cow, Grass. Silently write down (or type) down which one of these DOES NOT BELONG. Ok.Everyone who said cow, standupEveryone who said grass, standupEveryone who said chicken, standupFun. 
  • So we just replicated an experiment that Richard Nisbett describes in his book the Geography of Thought to demonstrate the different mental models of "western" and "eastern" cultures - primarily those influenced by a  Greek philosophical tradition and those influenced by Asian philosophies.
  • This experiment has also been run in its popular Monkey, Panda, Banana variation with similar results. But I wanted to spare you…
  • you the danger of CUTE OVERLOAD by running it today.
  • So the crux of the categorization schema is that western types usually lump chicken and cow together because they are both animals, part of the same class of being, and eastern subjects tend to lump cows and grass together because cows eat grass - they have a relationship with each other, whereas chickens don't. Now I've done this with people who lived on farms and I've been told that chickens do in fact eat grass from time to time, but bear with me. 
  • lump cows and grass together because cows eat grass - they have a relationship with each other, whereas chickens don't. Now I've done this with people who lived on farms and I've been told that chickens do in fact eat grass from time to time, but bear with me. 
  • Point of this lovely little thought experiment is something that every IA should know and use when working with their clients, large and small, and that is that categorization is an ambiguous schema. The man we have to thank for the term IA, Richard Saul Wurman, points that out with his LATCH acronym - the 5 ways we have to organize information, 3 of which are unambigious: Location, Alphabet and Time and the other two ambiguous ones, Categorization and Hieararchy (or continuum). So backyard chicken / City of Vancouver Jokes aside, this was the entry point for me to try to get City staff thinking differently about how to organize the site. I had the City management team perform that same thought experiment in a presentation. I convinced them that maybe the chicken was the odd one out and not the grass after all. 
  • Location, Alphabet and Time and the other two ambiguous ones, Categorization and Hieararchy (or continuum). So backyard chicken / City of Vancouver Jokes aside, this was the entry point for me to try to get City staff thinking differently about how to organize the site. I had the City management team perform that same thought experiment in a presentation. I convinced them that maybe the chicken was the odd one out and not the grass after all. 
  • So you might be thinking, yeah, man, let's avoid ambiguous categorization and stick with something safer: let's focus on the user. focus on the user! Of course! the user! Now I've seen many well intentioned civic governments adopt a design pattern that starts with the user.
  • And puts them into one of 3 major buckets: To Delta and Nanaimo locally to such high profile cities as New York City and San Franscisco, this IA design pattern has been replicated over and over and over again: Resident, Business, Visitor. 
  • And puts them into one of 3 major buckets: To Delta and Nanaimo locally to such high profile cities as New York City and San Franscisco, this IA design pattern has been replicated over and over and over again: Resident, Business, Visitor. 
  • Resident, Business, Visitor. 
  • Now I'm opposed to this schema. And here's why. Putting these 3 choices in front of the user when they hit the front of your website is like holding up a giant cognitive and existential stop sign. 
  • You can see why this is an issue. 
  • The questions we should be asking, if we could speak with the citizen or business or visitor is "Hi, how can I help you today? What are you trying to accomplish? And perhaps even the question of "Why?" to help understand our visitor's motivations, provide some context in assisting them. But most civic governments don't have the ability to ask their website visitors what they're looking for or what they're trying to accomplish every time they visit, so they conveniently use another internally focused categorization schema to organize content. 
  • So to recap, I'm can now be clearly labelled in IA circles and bad mouthed on twitter as being anti-org-chart and anti-audience-segment. and that covers about 80% of the the civic websites I've ever seen. 
  • So to recap, I'm can now be clearly labelled in IA circles and bad mouthed on twitter as being anti-org-chart and anti-audience-segment. and that covers about 80% of the the civic websites I've ever seen. 
  • So to recap, I'm can now be clearly labelled in IA circles and bad mouthed on twitter as being anti-org-chart and anti-audience-segment. and that covers about 80% of the the civic websites I've ever seen. 
  • So to recap, I'm can now be clearly labelled in IA circles and bad mouthed on twitter as being anti-org-chart and anti-audience-segment. and that covers about 80% of the the civic websites I've ever seen. Well, what are am I suggesting? 
  • Well, all hyperbole aside, I do believe starting with the user is the right place. We derived personas with City of Vancouver staff using some nifty narrative techniques. We grazed through about 4000 citizen survey responses, including a wealth of open-ended question data, we mined 311 call log data, and everyday we did some observational research to and fro City Hall and throughout our travels in the city.  
  • And one thing that became apparent during our research was what I perceived as a figure/ground problem. All you designers should be familiar with this famous image from gestalt psychology...
  • And that problem is that in every conversation and every interaction we were having, there were two competing images: the city of Vancouver and the City of Vancouver. And one was clearly the figure and the other was the ground. And more often than not, they were competing against each other. I called this the small-c-city / large C City problem. 
  • and the City of Vancouver. And one was clearly the figure and the other was the ground. And more often than not, they were competing against each other. I called this the small-c-city / large C City problem. Large-C city problem
  • And my hunch was, that in order to better serve the Large C City in its ability to service the citizens of Vancouver and users of its website, we needed to better understand the small c city, the thing that most people think of first when we're talking about Vancouver. 
  • And that led to this question. 
  • Thankfully, someone had asked that question before. Google told me so. His name is Lewis Mumford. And I even owned the book at home with the essay inside of it, a remarkable text called The City Reader. The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and it is the theatre. It is in the city, the city as theatre, that man’s more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events, groups, into more significant culminations.Wow. Now we're onto something. And it was written in 1938. Bravo Mr Mumford. 
  • In case you missed all of that, here's the bullet point version:Geographic plexusEconomic organizationInstitutional processTheatre of social actionAesthetic symbol of collective unity
  • so really, the small c city isn't so small after all - it is *the city*, the aesthetic symbol of our collective unity.Small c city of Vancouver= that which is in focus for most of the citizens, most of the timeBig C City of Vancouver = that which they come into contact with, but might not even realize itMunicipal government, has a remarkable impact on our daily lives, but for many citizens, it's simply invisible. I'll get back to that important thought in a bit. 
  • And this figure/ground thing finally congealed into some kind of conceptual IA design manifesto for myself and my partner in crime on the project, our Sr UX Designer at OpenRoad Selma Zafar part way through that summer. Here's what we wrote:How I, the citizen, understand Vancouver as a physical location and collection of social facts is going to permeate and dominate my understanding of the institution that shares in the governance of its existence; therefore, we, as designers and maintainers of the website, need to align the experience of dealing with the institutional City as closely as possible to the experience of the geographic, social, and economic city in hopes that we can connect to the citizen’s mental models and achieve an intuitive website experience.One such implication was in the midst of a presentation to City executive, a senior member of the City's management team verbalized the implications of redesigning the City's website to reflect something more citizen centric, more aligned with the way people exist in the city, and what that might mean for the future service provision for the city as a whole and its organizational structure. The thought process isn't too hard to follow: if our old site was based on our org chart and was essentially a mirror for how we are structured, what happens to our org chart when we get a new way of presenting ourselves to the public? This is a profound thought. And one that's easy to ask but kinda scary to answer. If you think re-org'ing a 60,000 page civic website is hard, try re-orging a 9000 person civic bureacracy. So we started to work on a categorization schema that pulled in as much as we knew about the real world of living, working, and playing in Vancouver that we could during our project. We went broad as well as deep. We found great inspiration in simply looking at other examples of how Vancouver (and other cities as well)  were represented using the fundamentals of LATCH - location, alphabet, time, categorization, and hierarchy. 
  • We found rich, deep, and insightful representations wherever we looked.This great map with “fierce wind” and “heavily timbered and swampy” and “revuguees bivouac” and “improvised Morgue” depecting the fire in 1886.
  • Modern interpretatiosn from Wayde Compton the poet and Charles Demers’ book Vancouver Special
  • To the Google Earth representation of Vancouver in all its 3d glory
  • To the passage of time, both kitschy
  • And more meaningful.And I think the challenge for IA"s, once you let yourself start to explore a topic like an IA for a City and start asking yourself questions of "What is a city?" and "how do city's work?" and "do city's themselves have information architectures?" - I think the hard part once you've started down that path is coming to some kind of decision. Because design is decision making. And at some point, real artists ship, right? Our project had a timeline and a budget and at some point, we just had to produce something...So for the remaining timeI've got up here, I want to share with you not the final IA that we came up with, I'll leave that for the day the City re-launches their vancouver.ca site, which I hear from the team is happening soon. Instead, I'd like to share with you a specific artifact that we left with them, which I hope might be of use and inspiration to some of you in your future IA work as well. 
  • We called it the "design implications" deck for short hand, and that expression comes from
  • , if you trace it far enough back, the first edition of the Polar Bear book that really made an impression and so wonderfully defined a genre for me. My parents still didn't understand what I did all day long, but I knew that it had a name. And that was exciting. 
  • In that book, Lou and Peter unpacked the the black box of  information design in a little table somewhere in Chapter 11 that could easily go unnoticed by the reader.  That little table has 3 headings: observation, conclusions, IA implications. And that, for me anyhow, is the basis of all design work that we do. We observe stuff out in the "real world" - we then make conclusions about those observations, an answer to the question, "Well so what if you saw that out in the big wild world." and from there we ask ourselves another "So What question" - well so what does that mean for the design of the site. And as we walk up some of the rungs of the ladder of inference as it's known (which can be frought with some slippery steps and rickety ladders along the way), we make sense of our work and help people understand what we saw, why it matters, and what we're going to do about it. Observations, Conclusions, and Design Implications. Simple & Powerful. 
  • For the City, I added what I deemed most significant thematically into our design implications deck - knowing full-well that our time on the project would end and we might be handing our work over to another team to build the site, which did in fact happen. This deck I hoped would become a bridge, an important design artifact, and remind future designers of some of the rationale behind why we designed something a certain way. It forced us to be reflective, explicit practitioners, something as professionals in a discipline that is again in its pretty early days compared to other professions out there, felt like the right thing to do. It hopefully connected the observations of the authors (accumulated through design research, in-person interviews, staff workshops, citizen surveys, and more) to the practical hands-on task of designing the new website.It is intended to ground the designer in the ideas that shape the city of Vancouver, transforming abstract civic concepts into tangible website design interventions. Along with the deck of standard IA deliverabes (wireframes, personas, presentations, and IA spreadsheets) this was an important souvenir for the project. 
  • The deck starts with few provocations, one of which I shared with you from Lewis Mumford from his essay What is a City. I included quotes from Alex Marshall's book "How Cities Work" - I quoted at length an extract from an interview with urban design guy and recovering IA Adam Greenfield and I included this wonderful map and piece of inspired IA in the back of the book "Cities from A to Z".  the lines are "history, settlement, technology, commerce, pleasure, nature, traffic, and dis/order"the stops are things like "grafitti" and "bus shelters" and "dancing" and "pigeons"
  • We then went into our design implications section proper, which included the following subject areas that we thought were large enough forces at play that had shaped our thinking and influenced our rationale behind the design of the site. Some you might easily guess if you were doing this project, others we found interesting and perhaps a bit surprising. 
  • This one is titled "Jurisditional Boundaries" and it's a design implication I believe is present for all levels of gov't (civic, regional, provincial, federal) to really improve upon.   Observation:Different levels of government are responsible for different aspects of our everyday lives. It is often not clear who is responsible for what.Conclusion:Citizens are interested in who is responsible in order to seek action and resolution to a particular issue. They have a problem that needs resolution and want to find out who to contact.Design implication:The seemingly arbitrary bi-products of the design of government need to be clearly communicated to the citizen user, even if the responsibility for the service is not entirely that of the City’s. Examples of jurisdictional boundaries that affect citizens include transportation (City owns streets, TransLink runs the buses); animal control (stray dogs are City, stray cats are BCSPCA); and water (pipes are City, water itself is Metro Vancouver). we'd certainly seen confusion about why users were coming to the City's website in the survey data "Answer: find bus schedules" - we thought the City had some responsibility for dealing with this issue. A design implication existed. And we tried to do something about it.  In our wireframes we had paid some attention to these types of issues. This was an observation we deemed important, and attempted to highlight the implication for other classes of this occurence that other designers might stumble across in their journey. One of these on their own sounds simple. A couple of them manageable. 15 of them was a lot to juggle in our heads at any given time. We often referrred to these in shorthand in the project as "it's the mandatory task dynamic again" or "yeah, that's a jurisdictional boundary thing." – in hindsight, we probably could have developed these sooner to help guide our design process….
  • but as this lovely diagram demonstrates, design isn't always that straightforward... this was like our little post-card to ourselves and to our future selves about what we'd seen in our journey from the past.
  • this was like our little post-card to ourselves and to our future selves about what we'd seen in our journey from the past.
  • I'm nervous, excited, and a bit worried about the re-launch as you can imagine. When you invest a lot of your time and energy and self into a project as a designer you become really attached to your work - I think that's part of being a good designer and it's also risky if you're too close to it. I hope its a success, users find what they are looking for, and it helps  change the relationship that citizens have with the City. I believe in an effective public sector and I think, like Jess, that we have a great opportunity to work with them to make the public sector better. And finally, I believe in the increasing importance of IA as a discipline, as it transorms into the medium independent / cross channel incarnation that Peter Morville just wrote about in the IA Journal. Because it's there that we can help hold up a new mirror to an organization and help see themselves in different ways. In that way, we really are hopefully Designing Structures for Understanding - be it with our public sector institutions, our big C cities and little-c cities , and even somewhere along the way, ourselves. 
  • Thanks for listening. 

The City is not a sitemap* The City is not a sitemap* Presentation Transcript

  • The City is not a Site Map*World IA Day 2012 – VancouverGordon RossVice President, OpenRoademail / gordonr@openroad.catwitter / @gordonr *with apologies to Christopher Alexander
  • Why is this a problem?
  • Richard Nisbett
  • LATCHLocationAlphabetTimeCategoryHierarchy Richard Saul Wurman
  • LATCHLocationAlphabetTimeCategoryHierarchy Richard Saul Wurman Ambiguous classification schemes
  • LATCHLocationAlphabetTimeCategoryHierarchy Richard Saul Wurman Ambiguous classification schemes
  • Resident Business Visitor
  • Who am I?
  • Who am I?Who does the City think I am?
  • Who am I?Who does the City think I am?What am I looking for again?
  • Who am I?Who does the City think I am?What am I looking for again?Based on who the City thinks Iam, where would they put whatI’m looking for?
  • Who am I?Who does the City think I am?What am I looking for again?Based on who the City thinks Iam, where would they put whatI’m looking for?Uh… what am I doing again?
  • 1. What are you trying to accomplish today?2. Why? Can you explain that further?
  • Man, there’s no pleasing this Gord guy…#civicIAsucks #WIAD
  • city of Vancouver City of Vancouver
  • What is a city?
  • Lewis Mumford
  • • Geographic plexus• Economic organization• Institutional process• Theatre of social action• Aesthetic symbol of collective unity
  • Small c city of Vancouver = thatwhich is in focus for most of thecitizens, most of the timeBig C City of Vancouver = thatwhich they come into contact with,but might not even realize it
  • Our City IA Manifesto
  • Everybodys last stop,refuge,terminus,lotus land,Shangri-la,Canaan,utopia.Paradise colonized.Babylon unbound.Wayde ComptonPerformance Bond map of Vancouver: Charles Demers, Vancouver Special
  • Design Implications
  • From City A to Z, Pile & Thrift, 2000
  • • Categories • Transparency/Translucency• Time • Visibility / Invisibility• Geography (Space) • Jurisdictional Boundaries• Personal Geography (Place) • Seasons• Maps • Voluntary/Mandatory• Conflict • Language• Demand • Channel Preference • Engagement
  • Jurisdictional Boundariesobservation Different levels of government are responsible for different aspects of our everyday lives. It is often not clear who is responsible for what. Citizens are interested in who is responsible inconclusion order to seek action and resolution to a particular issue. They have a problem that needs resolution and want to find out who to contact.design The seemingly arbitrary by-products of the designimplication of government need to be clearly communicated to the citizen user, even if the responsibility for the service is not entirely that of the City’s. Examples of jurisdictional boundaries that affect citizens include transportation (City owns streets, TransLink runs the buses); animal control (stray dogs are City, stray cats are BCSPCA); and water (pipes are City, water itself is Metro Vancouver).
  • The Process of Design Squiggleby Damien Newman, Central Office of Design(Creative Commons - CC BY-ND 3.0 )
  • The Process of Design Squiggleby Damien Newman, Central Office of Design(Creative Commons - CC BY-ND 3.0 )
  • Happy World IA Day
  • We’re OpenRoadWe’re always looking for interestingnew projectsWe’re hiring IA / UX / ID talentWe’d like to meet you I’m Gordon Ross, Vice President & Partner at OpenRoad. Email me at gordonr@openroad.ca or follow me on twitter at @gordonr Find out more about OpenRoad at http://www.openroad.ca