On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Jorge Arango. He’s an information architect and author of the book, Living in Information. Jorge and Brian Ardinger talk about how Jorge’s background and traditional architecture has affected his insights and approach to digital design. They talk about some of the trends in information architecture, and how digital environments are changing the way we work and live.
Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, founder of Insideoutside.io, a provider of research, events, and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking, tools, tactics, and trends, in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Jorge Arango. He is the strategic designer and information architect and author of the book called Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places. Welcome to the show Jorge.
Jorge Arango: Thank you, Brian. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Brian Ardinger: I’m excited to have you on the show to talk about your book, but more importantly, to talk about this whole world of information architecture. If my research is correct, you started your career in traditional architecture. And so I’d like to maybe start there and talk about how did you go from the world of physical architecture to the world of digital design?
Jorge Arango: Yeah, that’s right. So, I studied architecture as in the design of buildings and it’s been a while now. I’m part of a generation of folks who came into the workforce at a very interesting time in history when the worldwide web was coming into focus. It was becoming a thing. And when I saw the web, I essentially left my career in architecture to start a web design studio, because it seemed to me at the time that this was a new medium that would change the world. We didn’t know yet, in what ways it would change the world, but it was pretty clear that it was going to be huge.
Brian Ardinger: To give the audience of understanding of what is information architecture and how does that differ then UX design or creative and that?
Jorge Arango: Yeah, there is some overlap there in that information, architects help create the experiences that people have when they interact with software. But it’s in no ways constrained by the design of software. So, information architecture is focused on helping make information easier to find and understand. So, think of something like an online store where you maybe are offering your customers, a large catalog of goods.
There are going to be ways for you to structure that information so that your customers can find what they’re looking for. And so that they can do things like compare products to other products or find related products and establishing those relationships, figuring out what distinctions to enable is a big part of what information architects do.
A lot of people who are involved with the design of software-based experiences, think of design as concerned with the way that things look and how they function. And that is certainly an important component of it. But information architects are concerned with the underlying structures that inform those things. That includes things like categories, navigation systems, the way that search engine search functionality, and such a system is structured and organized. Those are all within the area of concern for information architects.
Brian Ardinger: I can see now where traditional architecture can have a major influence in how you develop digital environments. How do you think you’re learning in the physical world has influenced your digital design capabilities?
Jorge Arango: That’s one of the reasons that I actually jumped on the web back in the mid-nineties. It was pretty clear to me that there was a direct relationship between the stuff that I’d been studying in architecture school and what was needed for this new medium.
The main things that I often talk about are a concern for structure. A building is not just a collection of forms and spaces. It is also a series of systems that are structural systems, right? Like, and you can think in traditional architecture terms or building architecture terms, you can think of the columns and beams and other physical structural elements that hold the building up and allow it to resist the forces like gravity.
It was pretty clear to me that there were structural aspects to the web experience even fairly early on. And the other one, which I’ve already touched on, was the fact that these are systems. They’re never freestanding elements. And when you’re designing the user interface to a software-based product or service, the stuff that you see on the screen, isn’t all there is to it. Oftentimes these things form part of and relate to other component. That’s very much within the area of concern for building architects as well. You have to be mindful of all of the systems that make up a building when you’re designing such a thing.
Brian Ardinger: Well, I imagine as you’re building out more and more digital products and more and more people are becoming used to that, it was different back when you’re just developing a website and that was a place people went typically. But now digital is involved with virtually everything. Your phone’s in your pocket and your hand. Smart technologies, IOT, things along those lines are giving you data and giving you access to things that changed the physical world, as well as the digital world. How do you go about approaching a new project to start mapping out how these systems and structures interact?
Jorge Arango: Again, there’s a learning there from design of buildings. So, when you’re designing a building, one of the first things that you want to do is understand what is called the program. Let’s say that you’ve been hired to work on the design of something like a dance studio. When designing a building to serve the functions of a dance studio, there are going to be certain functions that that environment is going to have to be able to accommodate. And those functions call for different types of spaces. For example, in a dance studio, you’re going to want rooms for people’s bodies to be able to make a series of movements. And that dictates the form of those spaces.
You’re also going to want. Other types of rooms that enable people to change in and out of their street clothes so that they can get into clothes that they’re more comfortable performing dance moves with. And there’s a whole host of other functions that such a building must accommodate. Architects oftentimes start by thinking about the program that a building must accommodate and what types of spaces are going to have to be a part of that and how those spaces relate to each other.
The same is true for people who are designing software-based experiences. I find that one of the things most missing in our disciplines these days is taking a step back from how things will look and function and really thinking about what functions the quote unquote place must accommodate and thinking about those different parts of the environment, relate to each other. There’s a discipline called conceptual modeling that delves into this. Thinking about the experience kind of in the abstract and how the different functions must relate to each other. What components must be there.
That is usually where I start. When you’re designing particularly a complex product or service. You have to start there because if you don’t have a sense for the different functions that the environment or the system is going to have to provide, if you start dealing with them kind of in a piecemeal manner, you’re going to miss out on opportunities to enable coherence.
Brian Ardinger: Are you going back and forth between the real world and trying to understand how that user is experiencing the real world and then mapping that and how that would play out on a screen in that environment.
Jorge Arango: The fact is that we’re living in a time when the digital is increasingly becoming reality. I think that when you’re saying reality, you mean our physical environment. So right now you and I are talking and having the sort of conversation that people 120 years ago, would have had to be sitting in the same physical room to be able to have. But you and I, our bodies are very distant from each other. We’re in different physical environments. We’re sharing this conversation. The tool that we’re using to record this, I’m looking at it on a window, on my computer in front of me.
So somehow like my physical body is not in the same place than where we’re having this conversation. And increasingly more and more of our interactions, kind of at every level, especially now in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, where so many of us are now, quote unquote, working from home, which essentially means working from our computers. Now, many of the things that people would do in the real world, we’re now doing in these software-based environments. And the structure and design of these things is becoming ever more critical. So, for me, I go back and forth in the lessons that I bring from architecture, but my focus is squarely on the digital realm.
Brian Ardinger: You book, Living in information, has received really high praise. One of the quotes I saw was it’s the single best book on user experience I’ve read in over 20 years. So what made you decide to write a book about information architecture and what’s in the book for folks out there to learn from.
Jorge Arango: Yes. So, thank you for that. Living in information is actually the second book I’ve worked on. The first book, I was coauthor of the fourth edition of the information architecture book from O’Reilly, Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond. And I start there because I have been a part of the information architecture community, there’s a global community around this discipline. I have been an active member of that community for a long time. And one of the conversations that has been very active in that community, I would say over the last 15 to 20 years has been this idea that we are moving many of our key interactions to environments that are not made of bricks and steel and wood, but made of words and icons and that we experienced in screens.
So we’ve been talking about this for a long time, but what’s happened over the last five years is that we’ve become more aware of what the effects are of moving large portions of our interactions, including things like civic discussions, to such environments. Particularly environments that are designed with a business model that is predicated on monetizing our attention. So that has all kind of come to a head in the last five years or so. And that was one of the things that precipitated my writing of the book.
It’s the idea that if you’re going to properly work on the design of an information environment, and if you’re dealing with any kind of software-based experience, that is what you’re doing. You can’t limit yourself to thinking about the user interface of that thing. The buttons and the labels and the navigation bars that people are going to be looking at on their phones or on their computers. You have to think a bit more deeply about things like the underlying structures that inform those things.
And even more deeply onto things like the business strategy of the organization that is commissioning the work. And what purposes they’re looking to serve. These are things that designers oftentimes don’t talk about, but they play a huge role. And if you’re going to do a proper job as a designer, there’s a tendency for designers to say that they’re in this to serve the needs of the user and that their user centered.
The needs of the end user of the product are incredibly important. But when you’re designing any kind of software-based experience, you also have to be mindful of the needs of the organization that is looking to create the thing and ideally the needs of the organization and the needs of the end user are aligned. They’re in sync, they complement each other. They’re working towards shared goals.
Sometimes they might be intentioned with each other and it behooves the designers to make those tensions manifest. I like to say that design is about making the possibilities tangible so that they can be tested. And that calls for designers to be aware of what the forces are that are shaping the thing that they are designing. That requires that we dive deeper than just user interfaces.
Brian Ardinger: So, talk a bit about the timeline of how you go about designing these structures. Are they designed to be timeless or, you know, as the world changes so abruptly and new technologies are coming to play and that, how much of what you design needs to be relooked at or redesigned as the environment changes?
Jorge Arango: I’m glad you asked that question because it’s one of the main reasons why I advocate for thinking more deeply about these structures. We are under the impression, and it’s an appropriate question, that software-based experiences change very frequently. And that’s because the software itself, the technologies are evolving very fast. But oftentimes, when you really look at them, especially the ones that have been around for a while, when you examine them and by them, I mean, information environments, things like websites and apps. When you stop to look at them over longer stretches of time.
And by the way, when I say longer stretches of time, this is a fairly young discipline, right? Like architecture has been around for hundreds of years. And buildings have been around for thousands of years. Software based experiences are fairly new, but if you look at the ones that have been around for a while and you to examine them on a timeline, you’ll notice that the user interface, the presentation layer change in response to the changing technologies. So, for example, 20 years ago, if you were designing for the web, you had a very limited set of fonts to choose from. Web browsers weren’t very good at serving up fonts. You had very limited color palettes that you could work with. Bandwidth wasn’t as high as it is today. So, you can only do relatively small images. All of those things have changed over time.
So, the presentation of these things has evolved, but if you look at the structures, as they manifest in things like navigation bars, and labeling systems, and such things, you’ll notice that those change more slowly. They have a tendency to stick around for longer, especially if the environment is serving the needs of the organization. One example that I point to in some of my presentations, and I think it’s in the book also, is when I was working on the fourth edition of the information architecture book, I was going through and updating the examples. That’s a book that first came out in the late nineties. So, it’s been around for a while.
And the last edition had been written in the early two thousands. You know, I was going through it and updating the examples. And I remember seeing the example for fedex.com, which is the website of FedEx, obviously. And that’s one that struck me where like, if you were to look at the screenshot side by side, and these were screenshots that were taken 10 years apart, you could tell that the UI had evolved, but the navigation labels, the things that you could do there, and the different parts of the environment were still very similar. So that part of it hadn’t changed that much. Those structural distinctions tend to stand the test of time longer. So we have to be more mindful when we design those things.
Brian Ardinger: That makes sense. What are you seeing in information architecture that either excites you or scares you about the world coming?
Jorge Arango: This is a question that I would have answered differently a month ago, perhaps. And I’d say that just for the benefit of folks who might be listening to this in the future, we are recording this towards the end of March of 2020. When the world, at least those of us in the Western hemisphere are facing the full blunt of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has accelerated and intensified the processes that I wrote about in Living in Information.
That book by the way, was written in 2017. For the most part, it was three years ago. And these were tendencies, you know, this idea that we’re moving to do more and more things online was something that was obviously true back then. But now it’s mandatory. Like we’re all having to work from home. Right. So, systems like Slack. And Microsoft teams have suddenly become more than just an important component of our work environments. For many of us they’ve become the work environment and this structure of those systems is somewhat open-ended.
So, if you think of a system like Slack, when you first install Slack, they have a couple of channels where you can have conversations and you are free to structure those however, you may please. And it’s not an easy thing to do. You might decide when you first install Slack, for example, to create a new channel for each one of the teams in your organization.
That is a very different way of organizing it than structuring channels based on projects. It might be that you have both, but if you have both, then you might raise the question of where do I find certain things, right? Was this post in my team’s channel or was it in the project channel?
So, there are decisions to be made that at the structural level, that have a great deal of import and affect your ability to get things done. My sense is that we are going through a period where the need for information architecture is becoming greatly accelerated and more urgent by the very nature of the fact that a much higher percentage of the working population is now being forced to work from these environments.
By the way, I expect this event, we don’t know yet how it’s going to change the world, but I expect that there will be an impact to this that will be felt long after the crisis has subsided. I think that there are some points that we’re crossing now that will change things irrevocably. So, I’m fully expecting information architecture to become a much more prominent and more important.
Brian Ardinger: So, do you have any recommendations for the lay person out there to start thinking about some of t thing or getting up to speed on how to at least be cognizant of these choices that they’re making, for example.
Jorge Arango: I’m tempted to be self-serving and to point you to some of the literature in the field, particularly the O’Reilly information architecture book. That is the book to consult if you’re curious about this stuff. My book Living in Information is more about the overall balance between these forces that we’ve been talking about. More poignantly, to who might be doing work online these days, I would say, be mindful of how and where you’re working now and how those places are structured. Right. You might find yourself having a hard time or a harder time dealing with certain work activities. And it might not be the fault of the teammates. It might be the fact that things are not structured properly.
One of the folks who is kind of a founding father of information architecture, especially for the digital environments, Peter Morville, once wrote an article where he spoke of this as the pain with no name, because people experience the challenges of not being able to find or understand things, but they don’t know that there are ways of thinking about it so that you make it better. And just know that it might not be your fault. If you’re having a hard time collaborating, it might be just the environment is not structured properly and that there is a way to do it so that it serves your needs and the needs of your teammates.
Brian Ardinger: I like that advice, like the idea of just being more cognizant of your surroundings, more cognizant of the problems that you’re facing and documenting that if nothing else, so you can see how you potentially could solve them in the future.
Jorge Arango: If I might add an image Brian, you might have had the experience of suddenly being asked to do work in an open environment. Let’s say something like a coffee shop, where, and I will say these days, I think many of us might be missing the opportunity to work at a coffee shop. You might have had the experience of trying to work in a very loud environment, right. Like a coffee shop or somewhere where you’re in a shared space with a lot of people who are making a lot of noise and it becomes hard for you to focus. I think that’s an example of this idea that the context where you’re working impacts your ability to do the work.
Now think about the digital experiences that you’re having as environments and ask yourself is the amount of noise conducive to my doing my best work. There are Slack communities where there’s a very high noise to signal ratio, right. There’s a lot more noise than signal coming through. And people are posting random things and it looks like a chat. So people approach it like a chat. Just be mindful of those things. You want to work in a place that makes it possible for you to focus and is not stealing your attention.
Brian Ardinger: Well, Jorge, this has been fascinating conversation. Thank you very much for being on Inside Outside Innovation to tell us a little bit more about what’s going on in this world. If people want to find out more about yourself or your books, what’s the best way to do that?
Jorge Arango: The best place is my website. It’s Jarango.com. So, my first initial and surname.com.
Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, thank you again for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Look forward to continuing the conversation in the years to come.
Jorge Arango: It was my pleasure, Brian,
Brian Ardinger: Well, thank you again for being on Inside Outside Innovation, look forward to continuing the conversation and best of luck to you. That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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