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 – FT.com

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

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.

Overthinking Simplicity

Photo by Wade Morgen - http://flic.kr/p/bDmwy4
Via Marco Arment, I found this post by Lukas Mathis about his experience switching from an iPad to a Windows Surface tablet. The main reason he gives for switching is that the simplicity of ithe Pad makes it hard for him to do productivity work, er, productively.

“Apple has decided to make the iPad as simple as possible, but sometimes, this simplicity comes at the expense of power. Not having any kind of window management or split-screen view makes the iPad much easier to use, but it also means you can’t look at an email and at a Pages document at the same time. Preventing apps from interacting with each other cuts down on complexity, but it also means that it is difficult or sometimes even impossible to use multiple apps in conjunction on the same task. Not having any kind of system-level concept of a file or a document means that people are less likely to lose track of their files or documents, but it also means that you are often very limited in what you can do with the things you create in an iPad app.”

Simplicity is a tricky thing to grapple with. What kind of simplicity are we talking about here? Simplicity in visual design? In a solution? Of a process? The iPad simplifies much of the cognitive overhead required to use a computing device. It simplifies app installation and upgrades, peripheral management (in that you don’t need peripherals to use the iPad), battery management, connectivity, portability, app management, file storage, and lots of other aspects of computing. In doing so, it simultaneously makes some aspects of computing more complex.

As Mathis points out, for some computing tasks where having access to two apps at the same time increases productivity, the iPad offers a less than ideal experience. If you need to do these kinds of tasks frequently, the iPad has not simplified them for you. In fact, it has made these kinds of tasks more complex, not less.

Mathis’s argument put me in mind of the trade offs I wrestle with when designing taxonomies and navigation. When designing navigation labels, shorter words and phrases are better, right? Well, not if they make it harder to understand the thing being labeled. Fewer choices in a navigation menu are better, right? Not if the things your customers are looking for are left out. A global header with two or three choices is simpler than one with 15, right? Not if you’ve made the customer click to find something they could have found previously at a glance, or if they never click because they simply assume you don’t have what they’re looking for.

These trade offs often take the guise of aesthetic simplicity versus functional simplicity. These are not equivalent, though they are frequently conflated. Aesthetic simplicity removes buttons, decoration, text, and anything else that’s visually superfluous. Functional simplicity removes steps in a process or cognitive overhead (the need to think intently about your interaction or experience). Both types of simplicity are desirable, but I believe that functional simplicity ultimately wins over more users than aesthetic simplicity.

But the dimensions are a bit more complex than this simple dichotomy. Functional simplicity exists on a spectrum. What’s simple to me may not be simple to you. This is somewhat analogous to the way experts tend to use more precise terms than laymen. It’s simpler for horticulturists to communicate using correct Latin plant designations, for instance, than to try to struggle through the ambiguity using common names.

For Mathis, the iPad isn’t functionally simple. From his perspective, the Windows Surface — by allowing the use of two apps at once — is simpler than the iPad for his most important or frequent tasks. For me, the additional complexity of the Surface overall isn’t worth trading my iPad to get a simpler experience for this particular use case.

To each his own. Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s great that we have a choice of devices — and terminology — to meet our individual needs.

Photo by Wade Morgen – http://flic.kr/p/bDmwy4

How Search Amplifies Enterprise Collaboration

There’s so much good stuff in this post by Christian Buckley. It’s about enterprise collaboration, but his points apply to issues of findability generally. The central idea that sticks out to me: context is key to findability, and social interactions are great sources of contextual cues. As Buckley points out, though, context is mostly missing from modern search and navigation.

I also love this comment from Steven Flinn summing up the different modes of finding:

  1. Follow — when you are aware of sources of generally relevant information
  2. Search — when you are aware that you have a need for some information now, but don’t know where it is
  3. Discovery (i.e., recommendations) — when you have a need for some information now, but are not even aware you need it and/or that it exists.

Don’t like

Smart post by jeswin about how Facebook is broken by design.

In the end, there is a lot to learn from this massive social experiment. Your friend circle and impulsive actions such as ‘likes’ cannot predict what you want to read. Indiscriminate sharing is a bad idea. A large social network isn’t the best way to find information.