Context Design (beta2) World IA Day 2013


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My talk for World IA Day 2013, based on a book I'm writing. This is another permutation, somewhat different from the first "beta" talk I did in the fall. More about book:

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Context Design (beta2) World IA Day 2013

  1. 1. CONTEXT DESIGNINFORMATION as ARCHITECTURE (beta)World IA Day | Ann Arbor | 2013Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  2. 2. What do we mean by “Information Environment”?? Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt(This is another iteration of a talk about a topic I’ve been writing a book about (for O’ReillyMedia). More information available at )About 10 years ago when our community started the IA Institute, one of the questions we hadto tackle was - what is IA? It’s been a long conversation ever since.The more concrete, tactical part of the definition (about art/science of org/labeling websites,etc) was helpful for making IA sound relevant to business concerns back in 2002, and it isstill part of the picture. But it tended to be used instead of the other one (that used to belisted second) -- the structural design of shared information environments. But what do wemean by that phrase? It sounded right at the time, but we still don’t have anything reallyundergirding that phrase.
  3. 3. Labels Card Sorting Mental Models Navigation Methods Facets Tools Controlled Affinity Diagrams Taxonomies Hyperlinks Processes Vocabularies Thesaurus Task Analysis Hierarchies Ontologies Context Models What’s underneath that makes these things work (or not)? Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtWe have a lot of methods, but not a lot of understanding about why or how they actuallywork. Kind of like antidepressants.We also tend to talk about a lot of things like “understanding” and “information” and whatnot-- but what do we mean by those things? We need more rigor, more science - I don’t meaninformation science but science about humans.
  4. 4. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtCurated, complex information environment.Physical objects, digital interfaces, lots of language and labels around. All connected togetherto form a whole experience.This is a highly controlled version of the world we now live in -- which is more emergent,messier, but even more pervasively connected & digitally enabled.
  5. 5. Reality hacking. Context “Fountain” | Marcel Duchamp ~ 1917 Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtRecognize this?>> This was named by art experts as the most influential work of art of the 20th century.Not because of its beauty, but because it signaled & partly catalyzed a rift in how we thinkabout culture. Duchamp and friends grabbed a urinal and signed it with a fake artist’s name,and entered it in an art show. It didn’t get in -- but then they publicized the “injustice” ofbeing rejected so widely it became famous, and started conversations about what the natureof art really is. Who decides it?>> And it was all done by adding a bit of language to an object. By changing its context.>> It’s a sort of reality hacking. Why?I’ve been convinced for years now that the central problem set for information architecture isthe understanding and shaping of context.
  6. 6. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtContext has been in the air lately. Just about a year ago, John Seely Brown tweeted this aboutcontext. I grabbed a screenshot because it’s precisely the thought that had been bugging mefor many years: that we aren’t only designing *for* context, we’re creating it.
  7. 7. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtHere’s the coiner of the word “cyberspace” quipping on context as well.
  8. 8. Information changes how we experience the flickr - uicdigital physical. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtInformation (in the sense we tend to mean it colloquially) is what creates and changes muchof what we consider to be contextual reality.Look at this photo -- there’s information everywhere in this scene.>>The lines on the road tell us where to drive; the traffic light is a virtual barrier that affectsour behavior; the road signs give us a layer of instruction that adds meaning to the cityaround us. without the information here, it would quite literally be a different place.Really, you could have civilization without cars, lightposts and buildings, but you couldn’thave it without language. Language is our reality in many ways. And a city is as much aconstruct made of language - speech as well as labels, signs, other semantic artifacts - asone made of atoms.
  9. 9. Digital systems control more of our semantic life. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtHere’s another city intersection - this one in Dublin. Now the signs aren’t static. Whereaswe’ve lived with signs/labels that were always persistently part of the surfaces they were on,now the surface and the semantic meaning aren’t always persistently tied. Context shifts withthe twinkle of an LED.
  10. 10. flickr - aokkone More pervasive; more immersive. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtNow look at today.When you’re using a GPS, where are you driving?Your brain merges the information from the device with what you’re seeing in the windshield.They become essentially the same.So now we’re in even richer information environments.
  11. 11. More pervasive; more immersive. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtIn fact, research is happening now to actually increase the detail & realism the informationdimension for drivers.
  12. 12. Information makes places, kind of like this picture makes a pipe. If you could smoke the pipe. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtThis is the famous Magritte painting -- it says “this is not a pipe”The picture definitely shows a pipe but it’s not a real pipe you can smoke.>>Information is kind of like this in the way it makes places.>>Except for a key difference that, withInformation, you can smoke the pipe.
  13. 13. photo: Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt died.htmlRecognize this? It’s a home-made dungeon for Dungeons & Dragons.This is an information environment -- but it’s only barely part of the physical world. It’s alljust information. But we experienced it as feeling very real, with real consequences andmeaning with our peers.Ok whatever -- that’s D&D. Can’t take that seriously right?
  14. 14. US Constitution Some immersive information frameworks aren’t physical at all. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtWhat about this?How is this all that different from a D&D ruleset?Some people got together and wrote an information artifact, just words on pages, but it’s theframework the United States has existed within for over 2 centuries.Information is real, and it creates contexts that can have powerful effects on the reality welive in.
  15. 15. We co-inhabit digital publics legislated by engineers. “Beacon” “Buzz” Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtWhich is why people get so upset when some of the places they live in suddenly change theirrules. Without representation, without explanation.What did these two platforms get so wrong?They assumed that, just because the environments they created were digital -- informational-- the rules of physical social context didn’t apply. They oversimplified or ignored some verycomplex things about how people really live.They treated these designs as software engineering solutions, rather than life solutions.
  16. 16. It’s very hard to make context clear in digital places. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtCareful not to have another Buzz debacle, Google has to go to great lengths to explainGoogle plus. But it’s very hard to do. The environment becomes so beleaguered with labelsand narrative that the user has to learn a linguistic construct as well as the more “physical”structures represented in the graphical interface.
  17. 17. vs flickrcom - shimonkey - anirudhkoul Obvious difference. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtFor example, in physical space, there’s an obvious difference between a little nook in the corner of a room where you canwhisper to someone, and a stage in front of thousands of people where a microphone will announce what you say to all of them.Whisper image CC image CC
  18. 18. D vs @ flickrcom - shimonkey - anirudhkoul Not so obvious. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtBut on Twitter, all it takes is D vs @ to make that difference. It changes from requiring a big, physicalchange to a tiny alphanumeric slip.The information environments we’re creating are littered with these dangerously thin barriers betweencontexts.Whisper image CC image CC
  19. 19. We’ve always lived in language. abcdefghijklmn opqrstuvwxyz abcdefghijklmn opqrstuvwxyz Map = TerritoryNow we live in software -- language made into machinery. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt photo:’ve always lived in language -- since the earliest beginnings of civilization, it’s been partof what makes us people.>> But now we also live in software, which is language made into architecture. Places weinhabit.>> The map has become the territory.So, in a weird way, the D&D geeks won ... we all live in their dungeons now.
  20. 20. Existing Context online room The Context we design. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtWe aren’t just designing for existing contexts anymore.We are designing the context itself.And the more that information dimension pervades our physical space ...
  21. 21. What we make for the “screen” changes the world “outside the screen.” Existing Context online room The Context we design. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtThe more we’re actually designing all human context.>>What we make for the screen changes the world outside the screen.
  22. 22. Actually, we’re turning the world into the “screen.” Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtActually, we’re turning the world into the screen.
  23. 23. We don’t fully understand what we have wrought. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtI don’t think we really understand what we have made. We keep going as if everything we dowith this technology just has to be great, but we end up making mistakes and wondering howwe screwed up.
  24. 24. A deceptively simple model for context. Situation Agent Understand Subject Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  25. 25. Situation Agent Understand Subject Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtIn many of the situations we’re tasked to design for, agent & subject are in the same situation- or are the same entity.
  26. 26. (Did I mention “deceptively” simple?) Situation(s) Subject Subject Subject Subject Agent/ Subject Subject Subject Understand??? Subject Subject Subject Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtThe truth is, anything could possibly be an agent or subject... it gets crazy pretty quickly. Butstill, this simple model can help us look at each major entity in turn, from its perspective.But how do we then understand what that agent is understanding?That’s all about cognition.
  27. 27. Pace Layers “Information Technology” “Information Science” Written / Graphical Language Spoken Language Perception/Cognition Start Here Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtWe too often start trying to solve problems beginning with information technology -- orwhen we’re being *really* insightful, we’ll start with information science.We should begin more often with the most basic, foundational part of human experience -perception & cognition.
  28. 28. Contextual Understanding involves Perception of & Cognition about Information Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  29. 29. Information in Three Modes People communicating with people. Semantic Digital Ecological 10100010 01001000 10100010 01001000 01110011 01110011 Digital systems transmitting to & receiving from other digital systems. Animals (including people) perceiving the environment. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtThere’s a long history of people trying to define information. I’m not into defining things somuch these days -- I’m more interested in describing them.And that frees us up to understand a thing in more than one mode or dimension -- to be OKwith grasping something in all its facets. I think information affects perception andunderstanding in three major modes.
  30. 30. Semantic Digital Ecological Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtLet’s start w/ ecological. What do I mean by that?
  31. 31. Mainstream Cognitive Science (not “ecological”) Brain = Computer that works with representational models of the world & tells body what to do. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtThis is still the predominant way of seeing how the brain works. It’s part of the assumptionsbuilt into many of our methods and training.
  32. 32. Embodied Cognition (not yet mainstream) So what’s ecological here? Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtEmbodied cognition differs ... and one strain in particular (called “radical embodiedcognition” or “the replacement hypothesis”) says we should not try to marry embodiment withcognitivism -- but start over, replacing representationalist/cognitivist cognitive theoryentirely. That’s the camp I’ve found myself aligning with.
  33. 33. James J Gibson - Ecological Psychology of Perception Long sidelined, now hailed as pioneer of embodied cognition. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtJJ Gibson has emerged as a hero of the more radical camp of embodied cognitive theorists.He started out studying WWII pilots - and found that centuries-old assumptions about howpeople comprehend their environment were simply wrong. His ideas have been acknowledgedand quasi-appropriated here and there, but now many are starting to see his whole corpus ofthought more clearly -- he was really writing about embodied cognition (but calling itecological psychology).The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception is an amazing read.
  34. 34. Information Pickup Theory The perception-action loop. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtJJ Gibson’s theory of perception involves something called information pickup theory.He’s not talking about information in the Claude Shannon sense of information, but in adifferent sense -- ecological information in the environment. Intrinsically meaningful becauseof how we perceive it in our embodied cognitive experience.
  35. 35. A few key ideas from Gibson’s theories Information “pick-up” is perception of evidence of structural variation in surfaces/substances. We perceive the environment in human-scale terms, not scientific abstractions. We perceive environment as “nested,” not logical hierarchy. We perceive elements in the environment as invariant or variant. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  36. 36. The concept for understanding this relationship between perceiver and environment is... AFFORDANCE “... the perceived functional properties of objects, places and events in relation to an individual perceiver.” - JJ Gibson Perception exists only insofar as we perceive affordances. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtJJ Gibson invented the concept of affordance. Others have since popularized it, but gotten itsomewhat wrong -- mainly because they’re coming at it from a traditional cognitive-scienceperspective, not an embodied perspective.
  37. 37. Weather Vane & Watt Steam Governor For both, “thinking” and “acting” are products of their environment. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtLike the wind blowing the weather vane, or the steam governor “thinking” that it should slowdown the amount of steam entering the engine -- the environment is the origin of ourperceptual systems (our bodies -- including our brains).
  38. 38. Sigmund Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtI’ve seen this with my dog, Sigmund. When I try taking him for a walk, he’ll stop as if theground has grabbed him. Sometimes I’ll let him explore to see what’s up, and it’s almostalways something that I didn’t perceive the way he did - either because it wasn’t relevant orbecause I physically can’t perceive it. I’ve learned a lot by watching my dog figure out theworld. It’s not that different from us. He just doesn’t have the rich layer of language drapedacross the world like we do.
  39. 39. Every use case mapped out for an artificial brain. Supposedly made in our image.ASIMO Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  40. 40. Can’t handle all thepossible edge cases. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  41. 41. Use cases not mapped out. The architecture of the body does most of the “thinking.” (The “brain” mainly manages sensors.)“Big Dog” Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  42. 42. You can’t even kickthis thing over. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  43. 43. Semantic DigitalEcological Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  44. 44. Language is Environment Language is “a form of mind-transforming cognitive scaffolding: a persisting, though never stationary, symbolic edifice [playing a] critical role in promoting thought and reason” - Andy Clark - Supersizing the Mind Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtHumans have created *more environment* through language. We learn its affordances frombirth onward. Some theorists have convincingly argued that language has been around longenough for humans that it has been part of shaping our evolution over a million + years.
  45. 45. Contextual clarity requires structure. “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtLanguage brings structure into the world. Like the surfaces, objects, substances, etc thatGibson describes as part of the natural environment (or the built environment) language toocomes from the same ecological reality. This joke is a joke because of the structuralcomponents of the sentences -- the way they join together, and the way objects within themare detached and contextually ambiguous. Language is environment, not information.Information is what we *pick up* from the learned affordances of the language layer we addto our surroundings.
  46. 46. Ecological & Semantic Information In Conflict Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtDon Norman famously talks about the affordances of door handles. In this case, I was walkinginto a store and did not even notice the sign. This is a situation where ecological informationoverrode semantic information. I was looking through the glass, into the store I wanted toenter. Peripherally I saw a handle that invited pushing -- afforded that action.
  47. 47. Ecological & Semantic Information In Conflict Which red x???? Looks like a “confirm” action. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtSimilar issues can happen in interfaces. Logically speaking, the red X’s in the first exampleare all very different -- but ecologically, they require too much thought to disambiguate. Inthis app I found myself always deleting rather than declining, closing rather than deleting,etc.In an unsubscribe interface for, my wife discovered that she was apparently re-subscribing without realizing it, because that big red button -- like a big berry you can’t helpbut pick -- contextually feels like it’s a confirmation, not a cancellation/re-subscriptionaction.
  48. 48. Which of these will accidentally tweet publicly? Very little semantic or ecological information about what context I’m in Ecological Information / Affordance for action. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtThe infamous Twitter “DM Fail” problem is largely caused by users responding to DMs viaSMS.In this case, it’s hard to tell: which of these is a Twitter app that will safely allow me to DMsomeone, and which is my SMS app that will tweet to everyone who follows me? Thephysicality of the interface can easily override my perception of the semantic information’sdifferentiating cues.
  49. 49. Digital Information Semantic Digital Ecological Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtDigital information is the sort that most serious information professionals will say is“information.” The Claude Shannon formulation.
  50. 50. Digital Information 10100010 10100010 01001000 01001000 01110011 01110011 Black-box, computer-to-computer whisperings. Not meant for direct human contact.(But we do experience its effects in other modes.) Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt
  51. 51. Digital Information Mode Leaking into Semantic Environment Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtWe see machines around us trying to get us to perceive what they are saying, or what theywant to hear from us. We see them murmuring to each other in weird, noisy machine-onlysemantics that we do not comprehend either ecologically or semantically.The gas pump above has to have a sticker added to it that explains what “Enter Data” means.The Twitter profile with the iPhone coordinates expresses my location not in a semantic way(the name of a city, for instance) but in a Cartesian grid that I have no contextual orientationfor, either semantically or ecologically. The Delta app has information that I, as a human, canread, but it gives priority to the machines that I encounter in the workflow of the airport.
  52. 52. Semantic-information “place” signified by “account” Digital architecture determining ecological & semantic context. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtIf I walked into a bank and asked to access an account, it’d be clear what I meant. But online,it can mean different things (my profile-account represents me in the digital context -- andneeds a label, which happens to also be “account”). The digital systems behind the scenes atKohls require that these two things we call “account” be separate - requiring disambiguation.The ontology of ‘account’ is in question here. It’s one of the many sorts of things we have tosort out with language, when we’re working in an environment that’s made of almost nothing*but* language.
  53. 53. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtDan Klyn and TUG came up with this diagram that explains how ontology is at the center ofwhat we’re doing. Strangely, when I tried finding the word “ontology” in IA texts, it’s almostnonexistent. I’ve honestly not paid much attention to ontology for many years, but it turnsout to be one of the central things we’re overlooking when attending to how we shapecontext.
  54. 54. ONTOLOGY What am I? What is my world? How do I exist in it? Please describe a formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualization for purposes of structuring semantic data. 00101011100100101110100101 Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtOntology can be the philosophical sort, or the information technology/science sort.A big part of what IA should be doing is bridging these two planes of existence.
  55. 55. “Friend?” Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtI can’t get enough of using this slide because it points out how the mechanistic golems wecreate can oversimplify what we mean with the words we use.One of the big problems Facebook and Google have both run into is a facile conflation of theword “friend” into a data entity -- when in reality, “friend” has nearly infinite shades ofmeaning in our lives.
  56. 56. What is “card” in this environment? Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtLowes launched a service called MyLowes -- that requires the registration of a card. But theyalso have a “Lowe’s Card” that’s a consumer credit card.Conversations at checkout can end up like a “who’s on first” routine -- “do you have yourLowe’s card?” “My Lowe’s card? That’s what I’m paying with.” “No I mean your ‘my lowe’s’card.” “This IS my lowe’s card!”
  57. 57. Shopping Simultaneously in a Store & the Cloud Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtNow that retailers are trying to be in the cloud and on the ground at the same time, contextis especially confounding. It requires a great deal of work to situate the user’s perception ofplace.
  58. 58. Subway station + Food store Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtAnd here we have a situation where a subway station is also filled with pictures of productsthat you can actually buy -- not unlike Magritte pipes that you can smoke.With the QR code sprinkled throughout -- digital information wrapped in massive simulacraof ecological information -- plus the semantic information of labels/brands. This could havejust been a list of words with QR codes next to them, but perhaps wisely, the retailer decidedto create the place in our image, to help bring the “reality” of shopping for groceries intowhat would otherwise override perception as a subway station.
  59. 59. Information Architecture uses Labels, Connections & Rules to create the structural design of information environments. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurtIn essence, IA uses Labels, Connections and Rules to create structural design of informationenvironments.Labels aren’t something added to the world as an afterthought -- they are the keystones ofhuman life. Connections between labels, places, actions -- these are the links that bringrelationships and structure to all the things we label. And the rules (something we tend tooverlook as part of IA) are the dynamic agency that can shift and change the contextualexperience we inhabit.This is just a scratch in the surface of what it means to do information architecture, but Ihope it’s getting us a bit closer to understanding what we mean when we say “informationenvironment” and when we say we are creating architectures with information.
  60. 60. Thank You. Andrew Hinton | @inkblurt