Experiencing + Architecting Information

The Unicorn Briefing Notes give solutions designers and knowledge workers insights from modern information architecture and user centered design, to help them design better solutions and information products.

The focus is hard-core knowledge transfer, providing tools and approaches intended to give their users an edge in today’s competitive marketplace.

The learnings are cumulative, with each Briefing Note extending and enriching the others.

Experiencing + Architecting information
This Briefing Note is foundational. It explains that the user-facing view of information solutions is not great for assessing the quality of the solution and suggesting improvements.  The focus is presenting an alternative perspective, the architect view, that is much more powerful for understanding current solutions and innovating around them.

Understanding Users
This Briefing Note is foundational too.  It provides a framework for considering users in the solutions design process, focusing on user Goals, Strategies and Knowledge.  The focus is understanding distinct characteristics of the user and how they inform different aspects of your solutions.

Information Analysis
This Briefing Note provides heuristics for analyzing complex structures into its constituent elements.  These are also presented as a set of infographics summarizing the techniques. The focus is to introduce both processes and deliverables that give rigour to your intuition that information has structure.

Information Modelling
This Briefing Note provides a visual representation of an information structure known as an information model.  It introduces the notation, a small expressive visual vocabulary, and the practice the process of creating an information model.  Its focus is to equip you with the thinking to confidently create and refine an information model, using both information and user considerations.

Information Access
This Briefing Note provides a visual representation of how we access an information model, using a visual abstraction known as an access model.  This provides a systematic way of describing and assessing access methods.  The focus is to give you key distinctions so that your access design is logical, usable, and meets user needs.

Mapping Information to Experience
This Briefing Note shows how the information model can be used to generate a multitude of user interface ideas.  It provides a systematic mapping from the parts of the information model into interface elements used for information presentation, navigation, linking and filtering.

Information Places
This Briefing Note explores the notion of an Information Place, defined as an information environment that allows users to meet their goals effectively and efficiently. They are abstractions that let us focus initially on functionality and flow, deferring interaction design and visual treatment until we know we have the right set of pages in the right relationships.

Well-designed places arise from the interplay of both user and information considerations. We illustrate two main methods for getting information into a place, programmatically and using manual curation, and demonstrate how to evaluate proposed solutions against user goals, strategies, and knowledge to achieve good usability.

Information Modelling – A Unicorn Briefing Note

As part of the series “Experiencing + Architecting Information”, this Briefing Note explains the mechanics of information modelling.

  • The notation – a small expressive visual vocabulary
  • The practice the process of creating an information model – examples of the thought process showing initial creation and refinement.

This will be a foundation for the application of information models in solution design and innovation.


Unicorn Briefing Note – Experiencing + Architecting Information

Experiencing + Architecting Information

This Unicorn Briefing Note is the first in a series providing intermediate solutions designers with polished and practical insights into designing information rich systems that have a high degree of user acceptance. It draws upon insights from information architecture and user centered design.

This Briefing Note is foundational. It explains that there are two views of information, the user’s view and the architect’s view, and provides a framework for invoking them appropriately at different points in the solution design process.

Other Briefing Notes in the series will drill down in specific competency areas, providing tools and thought processes to take your solutions design to the next level.

More Infographics for Information Analysis

We have updated the set of Infographics for Information Analysis at https://theinformationartichoke.com/infographics-for-information-analysis/ with more tools to help with both the analysis and redesign tasks.

If you are involved in responsive web design, web site makeovers, content strategy, or document management, these will help you understand their information structure so that you can see opportunities for reuse in different ways, whether for different users, or mobile, or in a content strategy setting.

Infographics for Information Analysis

If you are involved in responsive web design, web site makeovers, content strategy, or document management, you need to be able to look at artefacts such as web pages, sites, documents, or sets of documents and identify the different information components that they contain.

Once you have taken the artefacts to pieces, you can see more clearly how to put them back in different ways, perhaps for different users, or mobile, or in a content strategy setting.  You will see new opportunities for navigation and presentation more easily.

Here are infographics illustrating some powerful techniques you can use


IA lessons from the mall

When I am conducting IA training, I like to deconstruct and critique the BBC Food site. It’s a fascinating exercise, illustrating lots of UX and IA principles, mostly excellent with enough you’re kidding moments to enrich the learning.

We start with a quick walk through the site. It’s busy! Twelve thousand recipes, richly connecting to ingredients, chefs, shows. Really busy. Structurally busy.

But it is busy in the same sense that a mall is busy, and this gives us some useful insights.

In each case, we are building places with lots of offerings of different types, where users go to meet their specific needs. Just as we don’t go into every store in a mall, users don’t look at every page in a site like BBC Food.

Of course, there is no such thing as “users”. Instead, there are people with goals. Some visitors to a mall have a specific shopping goal, for example to get a new headset for their iPod at the Apple store. Others may want to find that perfect Christmas present for their partner. Some may just be getting out of the cold.

It’s the same with BBC Food. Some visitors may want a lobster stroganoff recipe because they enjoyed it on a recent trip; others may want to cook an ostentatious Christmas dinner for their in-laws. Some may just have got there by accident.

Designers have to help all types of user meet their goals.

Navigation comes to mind right away. Both the mall and the BBC Food site, as well as individual stores and sub-sites, have their own navigation schemes: floor plans, directories, lists, menus, signage, and headings for page sections. Navigation is pretty familiar.

But navigation by itself is always a compromise, pointing us in the right direction but seldom getting us exactly or uniquely there.

The floor plan tells us that the Apple store is at the far end of the next corridor on the right, but you still have to walk down that corridor, and scan store fronts until you see it. And once you get in the store, you have to find the iPod area. As it happens, there is a big sign for iPod (a different navigational scheme than the mall as a whole). But at the end of the day, you have to scan the packages of earbuds one by one.

This interplay of navigating and scanning is typical, but combinations vary. In the Apple-iPod-earbud example, there was a lot of navigating and a tolerably small amount of scanning. In the perfect-Christmas-present example, there will be a lot of scanning, some would say intolerable.

Intolerable as the scanning may be, it is certainly efficient. We can assess in an instant whether an unfamiliar store is likely to contain that perfect Christmas gift. We walk along, judging yes-no-maybe without breaking step. We don’t even go into some stores.

How on earth do we do this? Well, it is based on brand and signage and numerous display cues, and on our goals. The window dresser has sent us a myriad of signals that they design with skill. We respond to the set of signals, even if we can’t recognize and articulate them individually. “Too expensive, too dull, nothing new, worth a look, she’d kill me, let’s go in” we summarize, ruling things in and ruling things out in the blink of an eye.

Designers in the online world are the counterpart of skilled window dressers. They provide skillfully designed signals about content; the user can decide whether the content is useful without having to read the content itself. We call these signals “information scent”. And just like real-world scents, they are complex and elicit an immediate yes-no-maybe response.

Information scent is used extensively throughout BBC Food. Some content areas are handled in a straightforward and systematic way.

  • Chefs: we know an area of a page refers to a chef because there is a head and shoulders picture of the chef, captioned by the text “By” followed by a name, styled as a hyperlink.
  • Programme: we know an area of a page refers to a BBC programme because there is slice of life picture of the host(s) in their show setting, captioned by the text “From” followed by a programme name, styled as a hyperlink, and followed by a date.

Is this scent effective? It depends. If I am an avid viewer of a show, this scent is very effective. It will be used in conjunction with my goals to come up with the yes-no-maybe assessment: “they always do good stuff”, “I can’t stand them”. If I don’t know any of the shows, then it triggers no response.

Other content areas are less consistent, and need considerable design skill to provide effective information scent. Let’s take a look at Ingredients as a great example; they range from highly recognizable vegetables to obscure spices and enigmatic bowls of stuff.

BBC Food cues up an ingredient by its name and an image of the ingredient in a kitchen setting. Here are some examples of information scent and its effectiveness in triggering responses in users.

  • The ingredients “Dover Sole” and “Sea Bass” both have a thumbnail of a fish. The thumbnails do not help me distinguish the fish; however, if ever I need a medium-sized fish, these would be candidates, and I would know to examine each ingredient in detail.
  • The ingredient “asafoetida” is completely unknown to me. It is illustrated by a small mound of yellow particles, perhaps a grain. It turns out to be a spice and I later figure out that a small mound is a common representation for a spice. The thumbnail is useful to me as I am currently looking for exotic meats, so I can rule this ingredient out.
  • The ingredient “gooseberry” is illustrated by glasses of white gooseberry fool; they look delicious. Would a thumbnail of a gooseberry have been better? More literal perhaps, but not as enticing.

Providing useful information scent is a multi-faceted, nuanced activity.

So where does all this leave us? Let’s summarize the whole exercise this way. In large complex information spaces (malls, BBC Food), we can and should help visitors by providing both navigation and information scent.

Navigation is the better known. It involves building classification schemes, taxonomies, labelling systems, as we have learnt from the Polar Bear book and others. It is mainly left brain work, but needs an ability to understand user goals and behaviours, and to engage users in testing your constructs.

Information scent is less mainstream. There are research articles, illustrative articles (on labelling, glosses, icons, providing previews), but there is no equivalent of the Polar Bear book.

We should introduce information scent into our conceptual framework and vocabulary, and ask how it can be incorporated into our solutions.

Until the definitive book is written, we should watch for examples of information scent and see what lessons we can bring back into our solutions.

The mall is a good place to start.
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For an excellent introduction to user search behaviours, information scent, and with comprehensive references, see the book “Designing The Search Experience” by Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate, reviewed here https://theinformationartichoke.com/designing-the-search-experience-book/.

For a detailed application of information scent to help users process search results, see https://theinformationartichoke.com/information-scent/.

Recipe for Success

A recent Content Strategy meetup raised two faces of information design.  One was information analysis and modelling, very dry someone said.  The other was voice and tone, more user centered.  In this post, we will see that even simple information design such as organizing recipes can look astonishingly different (e.g. for Martha Stewart and the BBC), because of the different way they regard themselves and their users.

In BBC Food, the BBC talks about Cuisines, Occasions and recipes from their cooking shows, among other things.  Very organized.

In the Martha Stewart website, she talks in terms of Hors D’Oeuvres that are “Crowd Pleasing” and Dinners that are “Better Than Takeout”.  Very touchy-feely.

Martha Stewart’s organizational schemes, embodying her style and view of the user, would feel out of place on BBC Food, and vice versa.

There are two considerations when designing an organizational scheme: a useful concept (e.g. Cuisine, Occasion), and good execution (i.e. what values do we use for the scheme).  Both involve user considerations.

Let’s start with the concepts.  The BBC seems more logical, with Cuisine and Occasion as organizing schemes.  The BBC could envisage use cases where these would be valuable in accessing a large set of recipes, and if we were informants in their user research, we would probably agree.

Martha Stewart is quite different.  She has two sets of terms that fit the sentence “I’m in the mood for {Hors D’Ouevres, Dinner, Cocktails, …} that are {Crowd Pleasing, Better Than Takeout, Bubbly, …}”.  There are dependencies between the two sets of terms, ruling out Bubbly Hors D’Ouevres for example.

The whole thing is very high on voice and tone.  A taxonomist would grumble that the sets of terms are not mutually exclusive and don’t cover all cases, but how much does this matter?  Maybe not too much in this case.  The whole thing feels like an elegant hostess showing a dear guest what’s available at a party.

Once a concept has been chosen, we have to deal with the execution.  This depends on the stance we wish to take with the user.  Personas help.

If our role is to help users find recipes as quickly as possible, we will try to mirror their way of viewing the world of cuisines.  This is likely to be in sharp focus in some areas (Italian, Chinese), but less clear when it comes to African food, say.

To align with these users’ mental model, our categorization scheme would mix levels of granularity.  BBC Food takes this approach.  They have categorizations at both country level (“French”, “Italian”) and the regional level (“Turkish and Middle Eastern”, “Nordic”).  The term “Turkish and Middle Eastern” is made up, but accessible.

A foodies organization might want to offer a mega-recipe site for food enthusiasts, be exhaustive, and cater to users who are prepared to be educated and work to fulfill their passion.  In this case, we might have a comprehensive hierarchical structure based on geographical or political distinctions.

  • Asian
    • Bhutanese
    • Chinese
      • Hunan
      • Sichuan
    • Japanese
  • European
    • French
    • Italian
    • Spanish
      • Basque

Where did voice and tone go?  It seems as if they take a back seat when it comes to large scale, exhaustive, hierarchical categorization schemes, especially when categorization schemes already exist as common knowledge.

To be sure, there is no shortage of possible terms for Cuisines (or Regions).

“The Land of the Free”
“The Far East”
“Rising Sun Recipes”
“Food that will make you say ‘Ole’”.

Putting terms like this into the comprehensive hierarchical structure would result in something inconsistent and incomprehensible, failing the “Don’t Make Me Think” test and other criteria of reasonableness.  Poor execution.

On the other hand, in a smaller setting, a restaurant in Arizona would be able to get away with sections in its menu called “South of the Border”, and perhaps “Across the Pond”, (but probably not “Our Friends to the North”).

Bon appetit!