Category Archives: Information Architecture

Sustainable file system hygiene

“Does anyone have good tips/tricks for file structures? I keep losing track of my projects.”

I hear this question or a variation of it frequently. Just got asked today during a skill share session I was in with the other OpenNews Fellows so I thought I’d write this up.

It is very easy to generate data (whatever form that data comes in — photos, project files, databases, notes, etc) so data accumulates rapidly. No matter how systematic you are about putting it somewhere, your context will change or the volume of data will exceed your ability to keep it under control.

It’s a challenge for everyone whatever their occupation or workflow so how do we deal with it? Here’s my solution:

  • Projects
  • References
  • Archives

Let me elaborate.

First, what problem are you solving? The central question is not “How do I keep stuff organized?” it is “How do I find this later?”, so your goal is findability above all else.

Rule #1: Everything needs a place. If you don’t have a place for things to go, they will go wherever and you won’t find it later.

Second, your data deluge problem is cross-platform and ubiquitous so you need to solve the issue for that scope, not just for one platform or device. It’s not just how you nest and name folders on your laptop but also how you organize things on Dropbox, Google Drive and so on.

Rule #2: The system is inherent to YOU, not the place where things are, it just gets mirrored there. It needs to be abstract and simple so it can be applied wherever you go and wherever your things might be. Over and over again.

Third, we are talking digital things so presume a file system will be involved and acknowledge that a file system is a constrained hierarchy which forces a certain set of decisions to be made.

(Yes, you can always search, great, but you also want to know where stuff lives so you can put more stuff like it along with it. Also don’t minimize your natural desire to want to browse because you will want to do that too.)

Rule #3: It’s a file system and hierarchy is inherently insufficient because categories evolve in meaning over time. Deal with it.

Your system is going to evolve over time so more important than what is the system, is how are you going to respond to the change over time. I have 5 active projects now but what will happen when two of the projects end? What and when do I back things up? And so on. Also:

Rule #4: Hygiene is about maintaining a healthy state. Only you can tell if the state of things is not healthy or going downhill. It’s also up to you to put the time to get things back to shape before it falls into a complete state of disarray.

Ok, back to the solution:

  • Projects
  • References
  • Archives

This is no surprise to anyone who has practiced Getting Things Done, but even if you haven’t, this is a sufficiently good place to start. Why does this work?

  1. Too much nesting is bad (for your own recall and because some backup reasons – some systems really choke with 8+ levels)
  2. Too much scanning is bad (for your own speed/efficiency, long list of projects you are not really working on won’t help you find things quickly)
  3. Trash/distractions are bad (also for your own speed/efficiency), but random stuff will accumulate. You don’t necessarily get to put things where they belong as you are working with them, but you have to at some point.

Projects

Whatever you are actively working on. Be descriptive. One folder per project. Anything that involves more than a step that has a supporting set of data/files needs to live in there.

“But I have 100 projects!” That’s not an organization problem, that’s a lack of priority problem. “But I don’t like mixing personal and professional!” ok, create those two folders and then put your projects in them – but remember, the more nesting/complexity, less likely to stay functioning and healthy.

Usage frequency: You will use what’s in this daily or every few days until you are done with the project.

References

This is a library; things you need to consult on a regular basis or review periodically. They don’t need to be cluttering your projects but need to be accessible and readily available. I have a copy of all my important IDs and docs in folder here. Also all my purchased fonts live here.

For example, when I finish a professional project, I move it to a folder in references called /Portfolio. I know that when it comes time to update my resume, LinkedIn profile or website, I can review this folder for the history of what I’ve worked on since the last update.

Usage frequency: Occasional or on recurring basis in service of active projects.

Archives

I put all my backups on the archive folder of my home computer. I back up my various devices to that location as well. Periodically I check my computer’s download folder and move any software to a /software downloads folder in there should I ever need a previous version of an app. I put all my photos here. I have albums I publish to places and such, but every photo taken is put away here.

Usage frequency: Rarely if ever. This only exists for an eventuality but also helps you get rid of stuff from Projects and References that is not that important to your day to day but you don’t want to get rid of.

Over time when I check that References/Portfolio/ folder I find projects that I have no interest in ever talking about again so I move them to archive. If I ever needed to read my graduation thesis ever again, this is where I can go get it (Chances: 0.000001%).

Rule #0: A sustainable file system hygiene depends as much on your workflow maintaining the system as the organization of the files themselves.

(It’s last to make a point, but really, it’s the first rule in importance and impact)

If you focus on organizing, you can go down a rabbit hole of eternal taxonomization that will not stand the test of time because when you are trying to find a thing your focus is on the thing itself.

The file system really should reflects your workflow. Your workflow needs to include a) put things in one of those places b) put the right things in the right places c) move things between those places as the context changes and they evolve/change status d) give all the orphans a home when you come across them (and if there isn’t one, the trash is where it needs to go).


If you do this across all your various systems you will find that findability improves but you also become ruthless about what’s occupying your attention and as long as you use the same pattern over and over, and periodically restore the pattern when it starts to deteriorate, you can stay on top of things.

Back to Information Architecture

In Sense-Making theory, identity is a central priority. It assumes that who people think they are shapes their behaviors (how they enact and interpret events). I am an information architect; I have always identified myself this way professionally because it describes information architecture as my core practice, which I simply think of as making the complex clear (Wurman). It defines my professional and personal ethos – and it does so to an extent I was not even aware of until recently.

I, like many of my peers, went through various crisis as I matured professionally. First existential, wondering what my purpose and value were. Doing that while a discipline is starting to established itself is both a privilege and a curse. A privilege because you are both defining yourself and your broader collective without the shackles of traditions and ingrained habits, making progress easy and fast; a curse because when the vast majority of people “like you” are questioning what you are at the same time, it is hard to find the comfort and support that gives you the confidence to advance.

Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld wrote a book that described what the IA practice meant for a particular context. That provided enough confidence for five or six years of truly amazing development in the practice of information architecture. I am happy I was around. However, I have not been happy about my community of practice in the past several years. The level of energy, enthusiasm and possibility I felt and experienced in the first half of the 2000’s became marred by attempts to find a solution to a problem that was not ever really articulated.

Known as “defining the damn thing”, we talked ourselves into a circle trying to describe information architecture and its place in the world. In that process, I watched information architecture erode as a discipline. The forward momento became stagnant. When DTDT is described as naval-gazing, it’s because it accurately portrays information architecture’s adolescence. Our struggle with DTDT is because we were in effect, telling IA to grow up, “be a man”, when it was still a child verging on adolescence. That’s the second crisis, a crisis of identity. Unlike the existential crisis, value was not the core question: we learned our worth and felt (mostly) confident about it.

Identity crisis is the failure to achieve ego identity during adolescence. Psychology research (Erikson) has found that peers have a strong impact on the development of ego identity during adolescence. I, in retrospect unfortunately, spent most of my energy trying to figure out my identity and grow professionally while our collective identity crisis was taking place. I would have been a really happy diplomat. Or engineer. Or software developer. All of which I considered seriously at different points, but because I pursued this path, I needed to push myself in ways I could have never imagined and watched others do the same – and I spent several years frustrated with the lack of progress.

Information Architecture’s crisis of identity reflects our inability to change our self-image. I find it funny that the stage of psychosocial development in which identity crisis occurs, according to psych theory, is called the Identity Cohesion versus Role Confusion stage. Defining Information Architecture and being an Information Architect are different things. We spent years conflating the two. Since our daily reality is the work we do, this work exists in a setting that requires role definition. We thought that role was “information architect” and in trying to make progress figuring that out, we stopped making progress on what information architecture was becoming.

Many smart people have repeated over and over that these are separate issues, but to this day I see people not making the distinction. This is when User Experience Design won the battle. At the same time all this was progressing, User Experience emerged as a term to describe the intent of these efforts we were trying to figure out. User Experience seemed to me like a way to refocus from the dogma of User-Centered Design to a more meaningful overarching understanding that imbues various disciplines with meaning and purpose. I feel this has been wildly successful. But what of the IA discipline?

That’s when our poor framing of the question came back to haunt us. “What is information architecture and where does it belong” was now being asked in this larger User Experience context. And Peter and Lou’s definition for the context in which it was defined was not enough. Also, the same question was being asked of other disciplines. This is where Design with its deep and rich traditions emerged as a great foundation – as a practice – to form the identity that could deliver on this promise.

By declaring and accepting we are all User Experience Designers we embraced User Experience and left Information Architecture behind. Apples and Oranges. But – I hope it’s obvious now – taking the identity of user experience designers could/should have simply broadened the identity of information architect, not dismiss information architecture as a practice. Unfortunately for information architects, this amazing progress of the field (UX) happened while we were having a major identity crisis and extremely ill equipped to distinguish the two.

There is no conclusion to this. I see seedlings of the right sentiment starting to re-emerge in information architecture from people who are not interested in what we call ourselves. That problem will always get in the way and I have come to terms with it. I am an information architect because that’s a meaningful descriptor of my identity – TO ME. I don’t care if I need to describe that meaning as User Experience Designer so I can be understood, but I no longer struggle with the identity. The label is just a translation of meaning into different contexts. I absolutely embrace User Experience as the field in which I practice my work and I draw from a few different disciplines to achieve what I need to achieve. But information architecture is still the principal discipline that guides me. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to move away from information architecture to get to where I wanted to go. It is nice to know this instead of wondering about it.

Explaining our discipline succinctly in a context-agnostic fashion seems to be the holy grail for most – I feel ‘making the complex clear’ already did that over 30 years ago. Explaining the discipline in context-sensitive terms, well, that I can’t do and I don’t feel I need to. Describing information architecture (as in DTDT) is the top down way to answer our identity question. As an information architecture practitioner I know damn well that the most meaningful structures emerge from the content, so my base assumption is to continue expanding the boundaries of our practice by DOING THINGS and then calling them something when we need a name for them. That name may be information architecture. Or not. I don’t care – as long as we don’t conflate the practice development and our identity we can start growing again.

UX People Widget Library for Axure

Thanks to the lovely Peter Morville and Jeff Callender, the UX People stencils (from the butterfly book), are now available as an Axure Widget Library. Now you have everything you need to incorporate better, more humanized flow diagrams into your prototypes:

RSW Flow Diagram Example

Jeff was nice enough to send me the source images so I created the widget library for us dynamic prototyping fans. You can still download the original OmniGraffle stencils.

To use it, download the UX People Widget Library for Axure file (3.2 MB), run Axure RP, then, on the Widget pane (located on the left side of the screen) click “Load Library….”. Locate the file you just downloaded (UX People.rplib). The library should load up and look something like this:

UX People Widget Library for Axure

Just drag any UX person into your prototype and you’re done. You can resize as needed. If you use it, please leave a comment and let me know!

Related and of interest:

Search and Browse

Today I watched a really great presentation by Peter Morville and Mark Burrell at UIE discussing search patterns. I have to admit that the only reason why I attended is because Peter was speaking and I always love what he has to say, because I very rarely have to actually design search interfaces.

After the presentation I actually started asking myself why the hell is it that I so rarely have to design for search behaviors. The reality is that oftentimes I’m designing for existing services where search is an existing capability and iterating it is never in scope.

One of the problems with that, which became more apparent to me after the presentation, is that treating search as a separate behavior from browse is really misguided. I thought about this problem before but could not quite articulate it very well until today.

Historically I had been taught and understood search and browse as distinct elements – which they are visually and from a UI elements standpoint – but from a behavioral perspective, they really are not, rather, they are part of a continuum. A spectrum of discovery behaviors if you will.

Browse-search spectrum

If we think, for example, about how faceted classification emerges in search interfaces and in browsing interfaces it becomes really clear how intertwined they are.

One of my questions to Peter during the presentation (which unfortunately did not get addressed but hopefully will be part of the UIE follow-up podcast) was if he had identified patterns of use of faceted search and if there were any emergent patterns that could help answer if faceted search is more appropriate for a particular kind of content or context — and when it might not be appropriate.

Faceted browse/search is a hot topic at work and I feel like it’s been historically a random requirement that ends up on a project brief because of process inertia. Someone saw it somewhere and thought it was cool so decided that it should be applied to the kind of content we are surfacing for our audience.

I have no good evidence to substantiate my hypothesis at this point (unless lack of examples in the wild is enough), but I suspect that for our content – namely video content, generally in the entertainment realm, frequently movies, series and other TV programs – having faceted search as a primary tool for discovery is really inappropriate.

I have definitely seen and appreciated the application in e-commerce and feel like there is a prevalent pattern there for its use. But on the content I design for, I just don’t know. If I am to rely on what I know from user behavior learned observing people try and get to the video content they want (across different platforms in a number of distinct scenarios of use) the attributes they need to make decisions are frequently few. The variation in behavior is little in terms of user motivation, and greater in content type (i.e.: people look for movies differently from how they look for series).

How can I make a compelling argument that this particular pattern is not the right fit when I am not sure what is? I’ve seen it fail in usability tests but that only makes people try to fix it and improve it, not to try a completely alternate solution that might be appropriate. Any ideas out there?

Also, I’m not on a crusade against faceted search, I am just looking for ways to 1) articulate that there might be a problem picking this particular pattern 2) explore other ways to do it (both in the context of use and content I described). Any ideas are welcome.

Regardless, I think it will help me in the future to frame the scope of what I need to design for when dealing with content discovery behaviors by thinking about them in the browse-search spectrum. At least I expect that to give me a better argument to combat feature requirements void of context.

Connect with people first, content second

Very frequently people ask me how to get started in the UX field, or IA practice or Design. I always try to tailor my answers to their specific needs. Today I got an email from someone at work asking:

“Hi, everyone. If you decided you were interested in IA/UX but you didn’t know much about it…and you wanted to find out more…where would you go? What books would you read? What blogs would you add to your feed reader? What seminars would you attend? What tutorials would you take? What tweeters would you follow?”

Having no context I took 5 minutes are made this recommendation. I am sure I would tweak and change this significantly if I had any other inputs, but this was my 5 minute recommendation and I thought I’d share:

The starter book is Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. After that, The Elements of User Experience followed by Don’t Make Me Think. All other books people recommend are wonderful, but not to start with.

Become a member of The Information Architecture Institute and find yourself a mentor; it’s the most valuable investment anyone can make when starting out.

I don’t follow blogs. I let the community curate content for me instead. Following the right people on twitter means they send me all the good blog posts. Also, you come across the relevant blogs via the discussion lists (specially the one you get access to when you join the IA Institute). Connect with people first, content second. It’s helpful to connect to the UX/IA/IxD groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, Slideshare – it will help attract good content to you. You’ll immediately have access to all kinds of people you’ll become interested in connecting with.

Attending seminars: Go to all the free stuff happening locally. In Philly there’s PhillyCHI and Refresh Philly to start with. Online, spend your money wisely and pick the topics that seem more interesting to from UIE Virtual Seminars and Rosenfeld Media Webinar Series. Make sure you keep track of The UX Workshop for free broadcast of local events in other cities.

For community and education, attend the IA Summit. If you are starting out, that’s the first conference to go to. And Interactions. For more focused training, UIE’s User Interface Events and Adaptive Path’s UX Week and UX Intensive.

On Twitter, there are too many interesting people to follow and big names in the field. They don’t necessarily share any relevant information or advice relevant to starting out. These people do: @jmspool, @whitneyhess, @halvorson, @sladner, @mmilan, @austingovella, @leisa, @mediajunkie, @emalone, @stephenanderson, @billder (I share a lot of stuff too: @livlab)

Lastly, start a blog. You learn significantly more by sharing and capturing your own thoughts than countless dollars spent in training.

And if you are going to start on all this after lunch, print this to read during lunch: http://www.jjg.net/ia/recon/