Give a hoot! Mapping (and caring for) the semantic environment


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I delivered this presentation at the 2014 IA Summit in San Diego, California.

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Give a hoot! Mapping (and caring for) the semantic environment

  1. 1. GIVE A H T! Mapping (and caring for) the Semantic Environment
  2. 2. I recently moved to California, and was surprised to discover that people here don’t just recycle: they separate waste into garbage, recyclables, and compost. In Panama, we had a single bin where we dumped everything. So my family and I have gone through the process of learning a new taxonomy of trash.
  3. 3. This is happening because over the past 50 years or so the developed world has rediscovered the importance of the impact of our interventions in the physical environment. We now realize that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our environment, and that we should do everything we can to curb those practices which damage this environment. Photo:
  4. 4. Pollution As obvious as it sounds now, the realization is fairly recent: it’s only come to the fore after the Second World War, as we started to pay the price of unchecked industrialization. This is a photograph from the Great London Smog of ’52, which claimed between 4,000 and 12,000 lives and sickened 100,000 people. Photo:
  5. 5. Los Angeles, 1948 This is the Los Angeles Civic Center in 1948. Photo:
  6. 6. Cuyahoga river The Cuyahoga river in Ohio, which was so polluted it literally burst in flames — more than once! This all happened within many of our parents’s lifetimes Disasters like these, the publication of critical books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the counterculture movement of the 1960s led to a renewed concern with environmental issues. Photo:
  7. 7. Which brings us to this guy. This is Woodsy Owl. He was created in 1970 by the U.S. Forest Service to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the environment. His slogan — “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute” — was meant to get people to interact more conscientiously with their physical environment. As you can see from my California experience, Woodsy has been successful in his mission, so I wanted to bring him along to tell you about caring for a different type of environment we live in: the semantic environment. However, in 1974 the U.S. Congress passed public law 93-318, also known as the Woodsy Owl Act, which protects Woodsy’s image.
  8. 8. WORDSY IA So I’ve asked Woodsy’s cousin Wordsy to join us instead. Wordsy will be prompting us from time to time with points to keep in mind as we learn to appreciate and protect the semantic environment.
  9. 9. Prix fixe 1. Why are we having this little talk? 2. General Semantics 3. The Semantic Environment 4. Craziness vs. Stupidity 5. … in practice 6. Coda But first things first. Allow me to give you an overview of what’s on the menu for our time together today. First, I’ll tell you about why I care about this topic, and why I think you should care too. Then, I’ll talk a bit about general semantics, the field which prompted these ideas. Next, I’ll explain what a semantic environment is. With this framework in place, we’ll talk pathologies, especially the difference between “crazy talk” and “stupid talk”. Then, I’ll show you a way to use this framework to map semantic environments so you can avoid making stupid or crazy changes. We’ll end with a coda, my own little “one more thing”.
  10. 10. Q: Why this talk? A: It’s all semantics So why are we having this conversation? About 12 years ago I was already a few years into my career as a digital designer, having transitioned from building architecture. I had already read Wurman and the polar bear book, and self-identified as an information architect.
  11. 11. I was looking online for my tribe, and came across this organization called the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture. I knew some of the folks behind it from mailing lists and such, but I was particularly struck by the “About us” page in the Institute’s website. It included a definition of IA that resonated deeply both with my background and experience.
  12. 12. “The structural design of shared information environments” It said that IA is “the structural design of information environments”. As an architect, I loved the idea of designing structures for information environments: this offered suggestions on how I could apply my background to this new area of practice. However, I was always clearer on the “structural design” part of this sentence than on the “information environments” part. What exactly is an information environment? After all, you could show this sentence to an IT engineer, and she could claim that this is what they do as well. I’ve spent many years trying to understand what exactly we mean by this.
  13. 13. For most of my career, the dominant medium that I’ve been working with is the World Wide Web. However, this picture has become more complicated as new information access mechanisms, such as smartphones and tablets, have become popular and have allowed us to interact with information in different contexts. Photo:
  14. 14. The structural integrity of meaning across contexts At last year’s Summit, I told you that I believe that one of the most important benefits that IA provides is the ability to convey meaning across multiple contexts. This statement raises many questions, especially in light of this concept of designing for “information environments”, but foremost in my mind are “what is the relationship between this phrase ‘information environments’ and ‘contexts’, in the sense we’ve been using it?”
  15. 15. The structural integrity of meaning across contexts And also, “how can you convey meaning effectively across different contexts?” This word “meaning” is particularly tricky: things have different meanings for different people in different times and situations. It’s slippery stuff, and somehow we’re supposed to produce structures that ensure that meaning is effectively conveyed. I know many people are turned off by discussions about semantics, and you may be too. However, I believe it’s important to think about this stuff, because as Andrew Hinton told us this morning, language is our main building material. So I’ve been thinking about information environments, meaning, and how we can enable understanding — the transmission of meaning — through information environments.
  16. 16. General Semantics This led me to a field called general semantics and a concept called the semantic environment, which is very close to what I understand information environments to be. I will share some of what I’ve learned with you today.
  17. 17. Alfred Korzybski General semantics was started in the 1920s by a Polish-American philosopher and scientist called Alfred Korzybski. His lofty goal was to develop a framework that would allow us to alter human behavior in the direction of greater sanity. Because language influences our thinking, and thinking influences our behavior, language is the core concern of general semantics. Photo: LIFE Magazine (1948)
  18. 18. Alfred Korzybski “The map is not the territory” “A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness” You may have heard the saying “The map is not the territory”. This is Korzybski’s best known statement; it is one of the main tenets of general semantics. However, he issued a longer version which is more convoluted but also more useful for our purposes. You’ll note two things: there is a concern with structural integrity, and there is a concern for usefulness. This focus on usefulness is important: GS is concerned with the way that individuals interpret meaning through the way we use language, rather than with the transmission of meaning in the abstract. Photo: LIFE Magazine (1948)
  19. 19. Surgeon Patient Statistician This all sounds a bit ethereal, so let me give you an example. Imagine a patient has gone to an appointment with his surgeon where he will be told the results of a biopsy. Sitting in on the case is a hospital statistician who is keeping records on the results of biopsies in the hospital. Diagram: J.S. Dubois
  20. 20. “This is cancer” Surgeon Patient Statistician The surgeon delivers the news: she says, “This is cancer.” Now, these three people are going to interpret these same three words very differently. The patient is probably devastated, scared, and anxious. The surgeon is finding ways of comforting the patient and making treatment plans. The statistician checks a box and moves on to the next case. Diagram: J.S. Dubois
  21. 21. “This is cancer” SEMANTICS The study of SYMBOLS Surgeon Patient Statistician The field of semantics is concerned with studying the symbols that comprise the statement “this is cancer” and what they mean. Diagram: J.S. Dubois
  22. 22. “This is cancer” SEMANTICS The study of SYMBOLS GENERAL SEMANTICS The study of HAPPENINGS-MEANINGS Surgeon Patient Statistician General semantics, on the other hand, is concerned with how the human beings involved in the situation react to and derive meaning from these symbols, which we call language. In GS, language is considered a distinctly human ability, one that sets us apart in the world. Diagram: J.S. Dubois
  23. 23. Energy-binder General semantics postulates that lifeforms can be organized into three basic categories which have expanded in scope over time. Plants, which were the first to appear on the scene, are energy-binders. Their major contribution was figuring out how to transform nutrients and sunlight into energy via chemical reactions.
  24. 24. Space-binderEnergy-binder Animals added the ability to move around, thus establishing a more complex relationship with their surroundings. Because of this, we can think of them as space-binders.
  25. 25. Time-binderSpace-binderEnergy-binder Our species opened the third category: we are time-binders. Because we have language, we can learn from the past. Language is central to what we are, and it is what has enabled us to build and learn and grow from each other and people who came before us. Now, you could argue that some animals are capable of simple language. However, as far as we know, animals are not capable of abstraction.
  26. 26. Abstraction enables you to think and talk about things beyond the here and now, beyond the concrete. For example, you can’t take a photograph of a “musician”. Photo:
  27. 27. Guitarist Musician If you want to illustrate a musician, you have to step down at least one level of abstraction to show something like a guitarist, which is a more concrete type of musician. However, we can talk about music and musicians as abstract concepts. Photo:
  28. 28. Guitarist Rock guitarist Jerry García Musician Artist Human ABSTRACTION We can easily go up and down levels of abstraction, and we do so all the time; if you’ve ever searched for stock photos, you know this ability is incredibly useful. However, we have to be careful, because at higher levels of abstraction, things are more open to interpretation. Also, we carry inside us representations of the world made from these abstractions. This is the map Korzybski was talking about. We have to be careful to not be seduced into believing that the representation and the thing being represented are the same. Photo:
  29. 29. As new ideas and things appear in the world, language evolves. We don’t usually learn new words by looking them up in the dictionary; instead we see them used in different contexts and little by little figure out what they are (and aren’t) referring to. To illustrate, let me share with you a word that has been around for a while, but which I only learned a few years ago. Image: Rene Magritte, “La clef des songes”
  30. 30. SKEUOMORPHIC This word “skeuomorphic” has been used a lot in our circles recently. The first time I saw it was on a blog post by Adam Greenfield. I had no prior reference to it, so it took me a while to actually get what it meant. After much reading, I now think it means something like: “an object or design which provides visual affordances by superfluously copying characteristics of older designs.” As “skeuomorphic design” became a thing we talk about, we developed the need for a word to describe its opposite. Photo:
  31. 31. FLAT? The word we chose collectively, “flat”, is not an obscure word like “skeuomorphic” — it is already widely used and infused with meaning. So it brings with it all sorts of associations that in my opinion are unhelpful when we’re trying to describe UI designs.
  32. 32. FLAT? For example, the iOS 7 UI — one of the more famous “flat” designs — is not flat at all. As a matter of fact, layering in the z-axis is one of its core differentiators. It does it a disservice to call it flat, but it’s not skeuomorphic either. When describing iOS 7, we are trapped by a duality in language.
  33. 33. SKEUOMORPHIC FLAT SKEUOMORPHIC MODERN SKEUOMORPHIC HONEST SKEUOMORPHIC PLAIN SKEUOMORPHIC TASTEFUL It’s worth noting that there’s nothing about the term “skeumorphic” that suggests that it sits at the opposite end of a continuum with “flat”. I can think of many other terms that would fit just as well. However, the fact that “flat” became the accepted term has reinforced the use of a particular esthetic over other possible ones. In other words, the words we use to describe and categorize things have an impact on not just how we see the world, but also on how we shape it.
  34. 34. Many problems in the world are ultimately problems of classification and nomenclature. Society regards as “true” those systems of classification which produce the desired results, even though those results and objectives may be atrocious. What we name things — and people — has a huge impact on our experiences and interactions with the world and with each other. Photo:
  35. 35. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Remember: when you name something, you constrain what it CAN and CAN’T BE!
  36. 36. The semantic environment So now we’ve gotten through some of the basics of general semantics. Let’s focus on this idea of the semantic environment, which came out of GS.
  37. 37. Neil Postman Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk (1976) The framework I’ll be presenting was described by media theorist Neil Postman in his book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk. It has long been out of print, but it’s highly readable and useful. Many of the ideas in the remainder of this presentation come from Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, so if you’re interested in anything that I say from here on be sure to track it down. Photo:
  38. 38. Postman explains that traditionally we’ve thought of communication as something that happens kind of like a ping-pong game: one person says something, the other listens, considers a response, and replies, the first person then listens, considers a response and then replies, and so on. Postman suggests that communication is not like this at all. Photo:
  39. 39. Instead of something we do, communication is something we participate in, much like a plant participates in what we call its growth. Growing is not something the plant does by itself; it happens to it as it is exposed to nutrients, sunlight, and water. Growth is the result of the plant’s exposure and interaction with its environment, and so it is with human communication. Photo:
  40. 40. The semantic environment: 1. People (in all their glorious complexity) 2. Their purposes in the situation 3. The rules of discourse by which such purposes are achieved 4. The particular language that is being used in the situation So what are the earth, sun, and water of this environment that enables communication? Postman lists four basic components: 1. The people who participate in the situation, 2. their purposes, 3. the rules of discourse by which they achieve those purposes, and 4. the language that is appropriate to the environment.
  41. 41. To illustrate, let’s look at two very different semantic environments: religion and science. Each has its own goals, rules, and vocabulary. People participate in each for different reasons, and the language that is appropriate in Church would get you tossed out of the research lab. Photos:
  42. 42. Semantic environments can also have sub-environments, with rules and vocabularies all their own. For example, in the Catholic Church, there is a sub-environment called the “confessional” which has its own specific rules and some technical vocabulary. Photo:
  43. 43. Much trouble in the world is caused by people who do not understand what semantic environment they’re actually participating in, as we can see from the constant clashes between people who wish to enforce the goals, rules, and terminology of religion in the realm of science, and vice-versa. Semantic environments are inherently different, and this differentiation is important for us to be able to achieve our goals through them.
  44. 44. When this differentiation starts to be blurred — for example, when you try to use the rules and terminology of religion within scientific discourse — we say that the semantic environment is becoming polluted. We mean this in the same sense as pollution in the physical environment. All environments contain some degree of foreign, or unassimilable, matter in them. However, when there is too much unassimilable matter in the environment, it becomes incapable of achieving its purposes, whether it is sustaining life or communicating meaning. Photo:
  45. 45. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Pay attention to the semantic environment!* * Hint: you are participating in one now.
  46. 46. The semantic environment: • People • Their purposes • Rules of discourse • Particular language So let’s look more closely at the parts that make up the semantic environment. People are a subject onto itself, and mainly out of our control, so I will not be talking much about them today. Suffice it to say that we all parse situations through various filters which mold our individual experiences and influence the way we understand and communicate with each other.
  47. 47. Purposes So let’s talk purposes, which is something we can actually understand and help support through our work.
  48. 48. What we mean by purpose is best illustrated by example. Let’s think again about the semantic environment we call “science”. You could say that one of the primary purposes of science is to increase human knowledge through observation. The rules, relationships, and vocabulary employed in this environment — for example, the process of peer review for publication in journals like Science — support and enable this purpose. Photo:
  49. 49. “Good” talk There can be no meaningful concept of “good” or “bad” language without consideration for the purpose of the environment. What is good in one environment is bad in another. For example, the objective, unambiguous, detached, tentative, public language that is “good” for a scientific environment would not be very effective during a romantic stroll on the beach. Photo:
  50. 50. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Remember: “good” talk does what it’s supposed to do in a particular situation!* * As long as the purpose of the situation is to serve rational and humane needs.
  51. 51. Contradicting purposes Most information environments have more than one purpose. Sometimes, these purposes are in alignment. For example, the semantic environments employed by research scientists allows them to advance their chosen fields and to advance their careers without conflict. However, we often find environments where two or more purposes contradict each other. Photo:
  52. 52. For example, our mainstream news media have a hypothetical purpose of providing relevant, reliable news coverage. However, most of them have an actual purpose of making money for shareholders, primarily through advertising. Relevant, considered news is not the best “eyeball magnet” for advertising, so many news outlets have devolved into semantic environments that use the language and role-structures of news media, while bombarding us with much content of questionable value.
  53. 53. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Look out for conflict between HYPOTHETICAL (or stated) versus ACTUAL (or achieved) purposes!
  54. 54. Rules Just like semantic environments have purposes, they also have special rules by which those purposes can be achieved. Many of these rules have evolved out of cultural convention.
  55. 55. For example, not all situations can employ the same tone. It’s perfectly acceptable to whoop and holler at a sports match, but this tone would be considered inappropriate in a wedding ceremony. Photo:
  56. 56. Tú vs. Usted Another example, in Spanish we have two words that we can use to address people: tú, which is the familiar you, and usted, which is more formal and honorific. Which you use depends on who you’re talking to and in what context.
  57. 57. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Understand the tone that is most appropriate for the environment!
  58. 58. A whole different set of rules has to do with role-structures: the relationships of power between the people participating in the semantic environment. Think of your relationship with airport security agents. Everything about the role-structure of this environment is designed to disempower the passenger and empower the security agent. You can’t even joke about it! Photo:
  59. 59. Other semantic environments have much more fluid role-structures, for example, when you hang out with your friends. There are no rules to which people are more sensitive than those of role-structure. They are also very resistant to change. When there is a conflict between authority and vocabulary, authority usually wins. Because of this, understanding the role- structures of the environment is extremely important. Photo:
  60. 60. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Understand the role- structures that influence the environment!
  61. 61. Vocabulary So we’ve talked about purposes and rules. Now lets talk about the words we use. Every semantic environment has a set of words that have special meaning within that environment. We call this a technical vocabulary.
  62. 62. “Responsive” For example, in 2010 Ethan Marcotte introduced the word “responsive” into the semantic environment of the web design community. It’s a term that helps us talk about important new concepts — in other words, it serves a purpose — so it has caught on and become a part of our technical vocabulary.
  63. 63. “Responsive” “Responsive” Often, words may mean something in one environment and have a completely different meaning in another. The meaning of “responsive” in the environment of the web design community is completely different than its meaning in an environment like healthcare, where it is also part of the technical vocabulary.
  64. 64. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Every semantic environment has a technical vocabulary. Do you know yours?
  65. 65. When dealing with semantic environments, you also have to be on the lookout for what Postman calls “key” words. These are simple, non-technical words which appear in every semantic environment, but whose meanings shift as the words pass from one context to another. Think for example of the word “law”. The fact that this word means something in the Judeo-Christian tradition and something else when talking about the legal system causes a great deal of trouble. Photo:
  66. 66. “What is good for General Motors is good for America.” – Charles E. Wilson Here’s another example, from a famous sentence you may have heard before: “What is good for General Motors is good for America.” This presupposes that the word “good” in the first part of the sentence means the same as the word “good” in the second half. But obviously this sentence is referring to two different semantic environments: that of business and that of the nation-state, and the meaning of “good” is not the same in both. Photo:
  67. 67. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Look out for “key” words: seemingly simple words whose meanings shift as they shift contexts!
  68. 68. Metaphors Finally, let’s talk about metaphors. Metaphors include both technical terms and key words, but impose a particular imagery or point of view into the situation. For example, throughout this presentation I’ve been asking you to think of communication as something that happens in an “environment”, and have equated pollution in the physical environment with pollution in this semantic environment. This is obviously a metaphor. While this imagery is useful to help convey the concepts, we have to be wary of the fact that no metaphor is perfect and that our thinking can become limited by the metaphor’s affordances.
  69. 69. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Pay attention to metaphors!* * Are you really “paying” attention?
  70. 70. Recap The semantic environment consists of: • People • Their purposes • Rules of discourse • Particular language To recap, the semantic environment consists of people, their purposes, the rules of discourse by which such purposes are achieved, and the particular language that is being used in the situation.
  71. 71. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! You’re going to be making changes to this environment. Don’t screw it up!
  72. 72. Craziness vs. Stupidity Well, Postman presents two pathologies: what he calls “crazy talk” and “stupid talk”. Let’s look at the differences between them.
  73. 73. Stupid talk Let’s start with stupid talk. Postman defines it as communication that has “(among other difficulties) a confused direction or an inappropriate tone or a vocabulary not well-suited to its context”. In other words, you’re saying the right words, but in the wrong tone, or in the wrong place or situation. Because of this, it “does not and cannot achieve its purposes”. Stupid talk usually has good intentions, but fails to deliver.
  74. 74. Think for example of a street-corner preacher. I’m sure you must have seen these folks standing around in busy urban intersections, preaching salvation at the top of their lungs while people just pass them by, pretending they aren’t there. The language and tone they’re using may be perfectly effective when used in a church, but here it is out of sync with the purposes of the other participants in the environment, so most people pass them by without receiving the message.
  75. 75. Stupid is as stupid does When I say stupid, I don’t mean that the people involved are stupid. I mean that the semantic environment itself is stupid. You can have very smart people on both sides, but the environment makes it impossible for meaning to be transmitted effectively between them. Let me give you another example, this one from my own career. I once did a heuristic usability analysis of an online banking platform. In this system there was a button that was very important: it was the button that took the user back to the “home” screen, which listed all of their accounts. This button was present in every transactional screen. Forrest Gump copyright © MCMXCIV by Paramount Pictures Corporation
  76. 76. Consolidated The team that built the application used the word “consolidated” for the button’s label. This term was part of the technical vocabulary used inside the bank. I had never seen it used before in this context, and I suspected other people would have trouble with it too. I brought the issue up with the team, and they were convinced that it wasn’t confusing. So I suggested we test it with users. As you can imagine, nobody got it.
  77. 77. Consolidated My accounts We asked the users for a term that they thought would describe this functionality better, and they suggested “my accounts”. Making this small change improved the usability of the application considerably. The platform team had been forcing a term that was clear in one semantic environment (that of bank IT) into another where it wasn't (that of the general public). This was stupid: it was done with good intentions, but it didn’t work.
  78. 78. Crazy talk Crazy talk is something else entirely. Again, quoting Postman, it is “talk that may be entirely effective but which has unreasonable or evil, or sometimes, overwhelmingly trivial purposes. It is talk that creates an irrational context for itself or sustains an irrational conception of human interaction.” In other words, it is talk that works as intended, but has questionable intensions. This is the territory of euphemisms and corporate double-speak.
  79. 79. For example, before coming out to San Diego I had to stop by a FedEx store to send some documents to my office in Panama. Because they weren’t urgent (and I’m cheap), I selected the package service labeled “FedEx Intl. Economy”. However, the FedEx agent helpfully explained to me that “FedEx Intl. Priority” would actually be cheaper than “FedEx Intl. Economy”. (He seemed a little baffled at the names too.) If I hadn’t been helped by an agent, I would have overpaid by choosing “Economy”. This seems crazy to me.
  80. 80. The corporate world is full of sweet examples. Here is another one. Coca-Cola has a very nice website that describes their social responsibility initiatives. It features large photos of attractive people being physically active in natural surroundings.
  81. 81. This website has a section called “balanced living”, which includes information about calories and obesity. I’ve heard there is an “obesity epidemic” in the U.S. and that sweet carbonated drinks are one of the main culprits, so I was curious about what Coca-Cola had to say on the matter.
  82. 82. This is where I learned that I’m getting fat from eating too much chicken. I thought, “this can’t be, where are the sodas?” So I decided to track down the source of this information. (Which isn’t hard to do: as you can see, Coca-Cola has helpfully included a footnote with the reference.) This particular bit of information comes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the USDA.
  83. 83. So I downloaded this document, and found out that — sure enough — the top three culprits are cakes, breads, and chicken dishes. But guess what number four is? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Coca-Cola website presents only the top three, and that it does so in a context that appears to be educational, transparent, and neutral. This seems crazy.
  84. 84. Stupid talk Crazy talk So I’ll summarize the difference between them by again quoting Postman: “Talk is stupid when it does not work. Talk is crazy when, in working, it creates and sustains an irrational purpose.” Fixing stupid talk is our professional responsibility. Fixing crazy talk is our ethical responsibility.
  85. 85. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Your job is to fix craziness or stupidity when you encounter it!* * Or get out while you can!
  86. 86. … in practice So now that we’ve seen the theory, I’m going to show an example of you how you can take these ideas out into the field and use them to help make better IA decisions. This is a technique my team and I have used at the beginning of projects to map the semantic environments that make it up.
  87. 87. Steps 1. Workshops with clients and users 2. Figure out how many semantic environments we’re dealing with 3. Have both parties map these environments 4. Consolidate the maps At the beginning of the project, we ask the client to set up workshop-style meetings with different groups of people who interact in their processes. This includes internal people as well as their clients. In these workshops, we try to identify how many semantic environments we’re dealing with, and have both parties map them. Then we consolidate them.
  88. 88. Typical questions • Who participates in this process? • How do you interact with them? • What outcome(s) do you expect? • What questions do you ask? • What words are effective? • What words turn them off? • Are there any gatekeepers? We start the workshops by explaining to participants the concept of the semantic environment, and the nature of the exercise. Then, as a group, we ask them questions such as these. We note their answers in sticky notes, which at first don’t have much structure. Eventually, patterns emerge. We’re looking for groups of sticky notes that seem to define individual semantic environments.
  89. 89. We then set up a flip chart for each different semantic environment we identify, and start moving the smaller sticky notes to them in a particular structure:
  90. 90. Actors Rules Goals Words We have one quadrant for each of the four components of the semantic environment: actors, or the people who participate in the environment, goals, rules, and the terms they use.
  91. 91. Actors Rules Goals Words PARTYA PARTYB We subdivide the actors/goals half of the grid into two columns, one for the first party, in this case our client, and the other for the second party, in this case, their clients. This is because both parties have different people and purposes in these environments, and we want to understand their perception of what the other party will want. Note that we will be repeating the exercise with the second party, so we get both perspectives.
  92. 92. The people involved → Their goals → The rules → The vocabulary → Interaction channels → When these mapping exercises are done, we consolidate the responses into individual maps that include the perspective of both parties. Note that here we also have two columns for the rules and vocabulary. This is because we want to identify terminology and rules that they consider positive and negative; that help or hinder both parties to achieve their purposes. We’ve also added a row to document both current and possible interaction channels.
  93. 93. As I’ve hinted, we are mapping multiple semantic environments and sub-environments. We want to get as specific as possible. For example, in this case, we had a semantic environment at the beginning of a relationship with a prospect, when executives are involved from both parties. We also had a separate environment that became active once the parties decided to enter into a formal business relationship, at which point lawyers and financial teams take over. They all have different objectives, role-structures, tones, and vocabularies, so we want to map them separately.
  94. 94. “Monitor” = Good! “Monitor” = Bad! Seeing these maps side-by-side helps you see if the technical vocabulary and rules match up for both parties across the board, and if there are any gaps you need to fill in. You can also spot roadblocks and opportunities inherent in language. For example, in the course of this exercise, we identified the word “monitor” as a potential key word, that had positive meanings from the perspective of our client but meant something else, with negative connotations, from the perspective of their clients.
  95. 95. It’s worth noting that there aren’t hard boundaries between these semantic environments — they inform and influence each other, sometimes in a sequence. Also, these maps are never fully complete. The value in the process comes from raising the questions and identifying unmet challenges and opportunities in language.
  96. 96. What we’ve learned: 1. Understanding happens in semantic environments 2. These environments can be polluted, turning stupid or crazy 3. You can help reduce the stupidity and craziness in the world 4. The first step is to map the semantic environments you’ll be working in
  97. 97. WORDSY sez… GIVE A HOOT! Map before you yap!
  98. 98. Coda I will close with one final thought. I believe that understanding and shaping semantic environments are critical steps in the development of an information architecture. These things are central to what we do. I think we’re doing much of it without calling it such, and many of you are doing it well. However, I believe we’re not doing a very good job of understanding and influencing the semantic environments that pertain to how we explain this to our clients, our peers in other disciplines, and the world at large. I think that by applying some of these ideas onto our own field, we can make headway.
  99. 99. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Just last week I had the opportunity to see a live debate between two people I admire tremendously: Dan Klyn, who is here with us today, and Matt Nish-Lapidus from the IxDA. Each of them did a very good job of framing the disciplines of IA and Interaction Design respectively, and arguing the merits of their views. I got a great deal of value from this discussion, and I only bring it up here because it reminded me that as far as I recall, we’ve been thinking of these two areas of focus in a sort of parallel role.
  100. 100. This view goes a ways back, and was reinforced in Jesse James Garret’s milestone closing plenary at the IA Summit in Memphis, where he spoke of the two professions in a way that makes them sound like sister disciplines: “There are no information architects. There are no interaction designers. There are only, and only ever have been, user experience designers.”
  101. 101. Information Architecture User Experience Design Interaction Design This suggests to me that the abstraction model that many of us have in our minds looks something like this, where both disciplines are areas of focus within a broader field called UX. In my mind, this model has serious limitations. For one, I don’t believe that you can show an example of “pure” information architecture in the world, devoid of instantiation, any more than you can photograph a “pure” musician. And every time I see something made by an interaction designer, I see information architecture in it.
  102. 102. Information Architecture Interaction Design Composition Guitar-playing ABSTRACTION I’ve increasingly come to think that a more productive model for this relationship would be to think of interaction design as happening in a totally different level of abstraction from information architecture, in much the same way that you can say that guitar-playing is in a different level of abstraction from the composition you’re hearing. You wouldn’t be able to experience music without people to play it; you would only be able to appreciate it intellectually, which is not the same thing. Note also that guitar-playing is not the only way to get your composition heard. Of course, not everyone who plays guitar will be playing complicated pieces for which they need sheet music. But whether you’re playing Sibelius or the Sex Pistols, a little knowledge of composition goes a long way to making better music. Note that this does not mean that one is more important than the other. It also doesn’t mean that they’re two sides of the same coin. It means that they are intertwined in a symbiotic semantic relationship at different levels of abstraction, and this influences the way we communicate. Understanding this could improve our ability to work together, as we must, since we can’t experience one without the other.
  103. 103. @jarango