Seth’s Blog: Survey questions

Seth Godin breaks down the difference between a survey and a census and why you would choose one over the other (or whether you should be conducting them at all).

Here’s a simple test I do, something that has never once led to action: In the last question of a sloppy, census-style customer service survey, when they ask, “anything else?” I put my name and phone number and ask them to call me. They haven’t, never once, not in more than fifty brand experiences.

If you’re not going to read the answers and take action, why are you asking?

Source: Seth’s Blog: Survey questions

Information Everywhere, Architects Everywhere

The following is adapted from my opening remarks at World IA Day Seattle 2016, which took place on Saturday, February 20. The theme for World IA Day this year was: Information Everywhere, Architects Everywhere.

If you’ve been around the information management world for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the joke about the old fish and the young fish. The old fish says “Water’s fine today”. And the young fish says, “What’s water?”

I didn’t say it was a good joke.

But it is useful as a shorthand for explaining something about what information is. We’re like the fish, obviously, and information is all around us. We’re swimming in it, but we don’t even notice it until we learn to see it.

How much information did you encounter last week? This morning? Since you started reading this? I’ll bet you couldn’t quantify the amount of information around you on any time scale. The room you’re in is information, the street outside, the words you’re reading, the clothes we’re wearing… every sight, smell, sound, and surface carries information, and we process it all in an instant and without even noticing that we’re doing it.

We live in a universe of information. And most of the time we can, like the young fish, just swim in it and go about the business of being. But sometimes, we want to shape and form information into something intentional and meaningful, into a web site, an intranet, an app, a monument, or some other information experience. At those moments, when information is both the medium and the message, we must notice the information all around us and attempt to make it meaningful to ourselves and others. We must apply design. We must practice information architecture.

Now, I imagine a variation of the joke about the fish where in this version the old fish says to the young fish: “I’m a fish.” And the young fish says, “What’s a fish?”

It’s still not a good joke.

But I think we encounter something like this when we try to explain to our friends, family, colleagues, and bosses that we’re information architects. When I tell someone I’m an information architect, I get something of a blank stare. For the longest time I tried to figure out how to break through that and come up with a cool way of explaining what I do (“I’m like a ninja, but with information.”), but I’m starting to lose hope that I’ll come up with the right words.

After all, everyone’s something of an information architect. Everyone organizes something: closets, movie collections, garages, files on the computer, kitchens, bookshelves… you name it. We all try to impose some sort of order on the world, to create systems that make sense and keep on making sense, and impart some sort of meaning to others. We’re all fish. I mean, we’re all architects.

It’s just that, for those of us who are crazy enough to voluntarily identify ourselves as “information architects”, we’re doing more than organizing our spice racks or shoe closets. We are doing the same thing, essentially, except we’re attempting to do it at scale. We’re trying to impose order on thousands and millions of items of information at a time, for users who may number in millions or billions. And these days we’re usually trying to do it within a window the size of an index card.

And there’s something so interesting about that to me. It seems like a fraught enterprise: doomed yet noble, and occasionally elegant and beautiful. There is information everywhere. And there are architects everywhere. But the rare breed who call themselves information architects are lucky enough to recognize these things; to understand that this is water, and we are fish.

And to be able to know that is pretty damned cool.

The Politics of Navigation podcast now available

The audio of the talk I did for the 2015 IA Summit is now available on the IA Summit Library.

Listening back to the talk was not nearly as cringe-inducing as I had feared. I’m actually really happy with how the presentation turned out, and with the warm reception it received both at the Summit and at the IA / UX meetup here in Seattle a couple months ago.

Taxonomy First

Great article by Seth Earley that lays out why taxonomy is fundamental to helping businesses come to grips with the complexity of the modern technological and social environment. Basically, his argument is that taxonomies can define the core elements of the business and give everyone a common language to work from, whereas defining data structures before defining taxonomy can fail to address the underlying structure of a business. Taxonomy gives businesses “conceptual building blocks” to develop adaptable and sustainable systems and processes.

Link: TextExpander Abbreviations

I spent some time following Zach Holmquist’s lead this morning:

That was all I needed to have the lightbulb go off, and to motivate me to finally cleanup my TextExpander Snippets. No more ;; or ,, confusion. All I had to do was simply split groups of snippets into period separated by objects and functions.

Having a system makes easy work of repetitive tasks, and having a taxonomy makes large amounts of information easier to work with. Setting up systems and taxonomies can be daunting, especially because good organization schemes often don’t reveal themselves until a certain critical mass of objects have been developed, at which point it often feels easier to just go with the ad hoc taxonomy that you started with. But it’s worth spending some time to get your system in order. The productivity pay-off can be huge.

Link: A unicycle for the mind

I go back and forth on the Apple Watch, but my first reaction was “I don’t get it.” Why would I pay $350 for something that doesn’t do anything significantly different from my iPhone? Especially when I don’t wear watches anymore? Why am I not excited about this? Do I just not get it?

This perspective helps clarify my thoughts: Where Steve Jobs called computers a bicycle for the mind, Jorge Arango calls the new Apple Watch a unicycle.

Unicycles share a few features with bikes, so you’d be forgiven for thinking they are similar. They are both human-powered and use similar components—wheels, pedals, saddles, etc. However, they serve very different purposes. Bicycles amplify human energy to allow the rider to travel farther and faster. Unicycles, on the other hand, are not transportation. They are entertainment. We stare in bemusement at unicyclists not because of the distance they cover and the speed they sustain, but because they can remain upright in a tottering one-wheeled metal pole with a seat on top. (Sometimes while juggling knifes!)

Read the rest. It’s pretty bang on.

Oh, and FWIW, I think Apple Pay is probably the most underrated announcement from Apple last week. That’s the thing that has potential to drive significant changes in behavior. If I had to bet, I’d say Pay will outlast and outperform Watch.

Link: Where new ideas take root –

(via Bob DuCharme on the Taxocop mailing list; free registration required to read the article on

When you’re on the inside of any system, it’s hard to see things from other perspectives. But companies and organizations are starting to realize the benefit of making the effort to organize around how customers think of the information domain.

But a couple of years ago Mike Mack, Syngenta’s CEO, took the bold decision to switch tack. He realised that while the previous organisational map made perfect sense to scientists, Syngenta’s customers – ie farmers – looked at the world with a different lens. Most notably, they did not usually wander into an agribusiness store and say: “I need fungicide.” Instead they just said: “I want to grow better rice.”

So Mack reorganised the entire company into eight divisions defined by crops, not chemistry. Thus if you walk around the greenhouses, labs and offices near Windsor today as I recently did you will see chirpy labels saying “rice” – not “fungicide”.

What would it mean to flip the taxonomy at your business? Internally or externally? If we did that where I work, I suspect we’d streamline a lot of processes that we usually struggle with.

UPDATE 9-13-14: Bill Schrier says pretty much the same thing about governments: People Live Horizontally but Government Organizes in Silos

Link: Selling Information Architecture

Smart stuff from Abby Covert:

In my opinion, IA is not something that needs to be sold. IA is already inherent to whatever someone is working on or has in place. If you are making something, you will be tackling the IA within and around it. With or without me you will “do IA.”

I guess in sales speak we could say “IA is included for free in all projects” — because a system without an information architecture does not exist. Rather than selling information architecture, I find that I do have to “explain” what it is and why it matters so that it can be worked on and improved upon (not ignored or inherited which is all too often the case)

Whether you’re interested in “selling” IA or not, the fact is you’ll probably have to explain what you do to others. Probably multiple times. Per day. You could do worse than have a few of Abby’s scripts memorized.

What Screens Want

I’ve had this piece open in a Safari tab for months and I regret that I’ve taken so long to read it. Adapted by Frank Chimero from the talk he gave at the Build conference in November, 2013, What Screens Want is an outstanding essay, both visually and conceptually. Ostensibly about responsive design and web and interaction design generally, the piece ends up getting at the heart of what this design is all about: making technology work better for humans. It’s about how we’re current trapped by a vision of the web that’s about commerce and transactions and not at all about making the world a better place.

We used to have a map of a frontier that could be anything. The web isn’t young anymore, though. It’s settled. It’s been prospected and picked through. Increasingly, it feels like we decided to pave the wilderness, turn it into a suburb, and build a mall. And I hate this map of the web, because it only describes a fraction of what it is and what’s possible. We’ve taken an opportunity for connection and distorted it to commodify attention. That’s one of the sleaziest things you can do.

If you care about creating a better internet, take the time to read What Screens Want. It’s well worth it.