97 UX Things

Joe Sokohl - Don't Forget About Information Architecture

September 07, 2021 Joe Sokohl & Dan Berlin Season 1 Episode 14
97 UX Things
Joe Sokohl - Don't Forget About Information Architecture
Show Notes Transcript

Joe Sokohl discusses how information architecture is the backbone of a good design.

Dan Berlin:

Hi everyone and welcome to another edition of the 97 UX Things podcast. Dan Berlin here, your host and book editor. I'm joined this week by the author of the chapter Don't Forget About Information Architecture, Joe Sokohl. Welcome, Joe.

Joe Sokohl:

Thanks so much, Dan. It's great to be here.

Dan Berlin:

Glad to have you here. An expert in Information Architecture, perfect for this chapter. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Joe Sokohl:

Sure thing. So I'm currently the Director of User Experience Design at Coforma, Coforma.io, which is a distributed consultancy that focuses on nonprofit and government spaces primarily. As we like to say we're impactful by design, we craft creative solutions and build technology products that improve the communities you serve. So I have a long experience in consulting, as well as product, so this is a bit unique.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. Great. And can you tell us a bit about your work there? Where do you concentrate in terms of what exactly you do? Is it from the design side or the research side? Where does your role fit?

Joe Sokohl:

So that's a great question, Dan. It brings up that issue of what is user experience design? The way that we look at that is we do have folks concentrated in research, we have people concentrated in product design, nd we have people concentrated in user experience design. Primarily the folks that I lead work in the interaction design space, crossing over between research with usability research where needed, but we don't have very strict divisions as well. Rather than Venn diagrams, it's more of a minestrone. The information architecture and content strategy and behavioral design where we can as well as Product Marketing, when that's needed. So there are different teams that have different focuses, the one I lead, again, focuses more in the experiential aspects of design.

Dan Berlin:

Okay, great. Can you tell us about your career trajectory? How did you discover UX initially? And how did you wind up where you are today?

Joe Sokohl:

So I'm one of the folks that has come to this career through different twists and turns largely through choices that seem to appear to me based off of who knows why. So I started as a technical writer in the early 90s. I've been doing this for a long time. I was writing instructions, procedures, and process documentation. What to do to enter information, what are the procedures to do that, and how does this system work? Then I moved into writing online help in the mid 90s and designing how people use content online. Some people may remember in the mid to late 90s, there was the push to put information online CD ROMs. I had this epiphany in the mid 90s. After going to some conferences and workshops, I could work better to craft information design and technical communication for that 20 step of procedures, that 20 step instruction manual or I could create a better product that didn't need 20 steps to be able to do it. So that was the breakthrough for me. Lots of readings in human computer interaction, and then information architecture in the late 90s, through different books. That has grown in for the past 20 years through several different companies, both consulting as well as product companies, and where my personal focus has been more and more on what I like to say is UX for the rest of us, that interactive stuff that people do in their day to day lives, the productivity applications, forms, that sort of thing.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. Great, interesting that you got that start in technical writing, and how that bloomed into UX. It's not just "Alright, let's document this. Let's find a way to make this 20 steps to 10 steps." How did you make those first initial steps from technical writing into UX?

Joe Sokohl:

One of the things that helped in that realm was doing Winhelp. Winhelp was an application from Microsoft for doing Windows 3.1 online help, the old F1, and later morphed into Clippy. But there was that whole culture around how do we give people assistance at the point that they need it? That's morphed, in the technical writing world, into calling it user assistance. And there's this parallel track that's been created called UX writing. I see that as all in the same realm. How do we provide cognitive linguistic help to people when they need it? It's just-in-time instruction. So it was in that period of the 90s, that I started to learn how to craft content as well as code artifacts that deliver that information while someone is doing something else. I did writing on the AS/400 using user interface manager from IBM, which was a form of structured, generalized, Markup Language SGML, the standard generalized markup language. That, of course, is the precursor of HTML that Tim Berners Lee's famously took a version of SGML and turned it into HTML. So a lot of reading and going to conferences at that time really helped shift in the realm. Reading, certainly Don Norman's book, The Design of Everyday Things, had a big impact. Ben Shneiderman's book on human computer interaction, John Carroll's books on scenario based design, things like that really had that impact to move into a more human and activity-based thing that we now call UX. But at that time, it was couched in different ways, and definitely brought along that journey of, "Oh, look, there's something interesting over here, oh, here's a thread to pull on." Having worked in radio back in college and a little bit of commercial radio, it's the same sort of thing of pulling on threads. You look at the back of an album or the back of a CD cover, and you see, "Oh, this song was written by someone named McTell. And who is that?" And then you find a Blues album of Willie McTell and well, where did he come from? How does Statesboro, Georgia enter into that? And all those sort of threads that you follow did the same thing to create this career of user experience for me.

Dan Berlin:

Interesting. I like that following thread of the music and design, we're following the thread of the information and the user experience. Thanks for that, Joe. Let's dig into your chapter, "Don't Forget About Information Architecture." Can you tell us about that, please?

Joe Sokohl:

This is a topic that's very important to me. I went to the very first Information Architecture Summit, which was held in Boston at the Logan Airport Hilton in 2000. It was held there because we were all just way too busy to take a whole week off of work because of that whole ".com" era. It was definitely a watershed moment for me to get to know Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, who wrote the so-called polar bear book, the Information Architecture for the World Wide Web book that had come out, written just a little bit before that. What I learned in that was about how information architecture organizes and classifies stuff, digital stuff, so people can find and use it. While information architecture has existed as a field or as a term or something for more than 20 years, lately, it's taken a backseat to the other areas of UX. Yet, an information architecture always exists, whether it's intentional or not. My point in the chapter is to try to help people think about and focus on the intentionality of organizing and classifying things so that people can find their way around information, they can find the elements that matter to them to help them do their job, to help them complete their tasks, to help them gain knowledge, whatever it is that they're doing when they encounter a digital experience. In the chapter I talk about a little bit of theory, the information berry-picking theory, about how people go from one thing to another or information foraging, which is an extension of that and uses an analogy or a metaphor of animals in the forest know where to go and they know that because of the thing called scent that leads them to that repository. We talk in information terms in the information scent. Does that link look like it might take me to the place that I need it to go? If the link says "New hotels in Scottsdale, Arizona", and you're looking for the regimental histories of the French army in the Franco-Prussian war, that's probably not going to be a good place for you to go; you're probably gonna pass by that. On the other hand, if you're looking to do a Frank Lloyd Wright journey and go to Taliesin West for a few days, then Scottsdale hotels might be a good choice. So it's about scent of information, it's about organization of those information items. That certainly helps.

Dan Berlin:

Yeah, and the relationship between those, and labeling those relationships. You mentioned "so people can find and use it." Really the start of the design process. A lot of folks just dive into design of like, "Alright, let's put this here" and then figure out what this interaction is. But tell us a little bit about that, what that first step should be in terms of determining how people can find and best use it.

Joe Sokohl:

I think that best practice always is to start with an understanding of what's there. So in the chapter, I tell the story of organizing our basement, where we had like a lot of people, we just had lots of stuff over the years accreting and throwing into the basement or piling up, of we'll get to that one of these days. And instead, we just don't. So a friend of mine helped us take a three step approach to that organization, put like with like, decide what to retain versus what to trash or donate, and then label and store items based on how you live.

Dan Berlin:

Yep, really starting with that base inventory and categorizing that.

Joe Sokohl:

Yeah, exactly. That's one of the things that you have to really consider, is you have to know what you have before you can decide where to put stuff. Too often people don't do that, and they end up migrating or moving things around that they really don't need. They just shove an information problem off to the next platform. But the information problem still exists. So I think that those are some of the things that we need to start with is, "what do we have?" Then, as we organize... again a lot of it is about language, because a lot of information is centered in language, but it's also about other media, video, audio, other aspects, finding out what those things are, and then finding how people think about those aspects. Whether you're doing a card sort where you're asking people to take a bunch of cards, whether they're physical or digital, and organize them into categories themselves. Whether these things that go together, or whether you are looking at an existing experience that has a search facility, where you can simply go into the details of the terms that people are actually using, and then find out whether they're matching content.

Dan Berlin:

Yep, looking at search logs and seeing what people are looking for, seeing if that matches up to what you

Joe Sokohl:

And what are the language that they're actually have. using? Are they matching? Is there disambiguation that you have to use? So for example, is it a spelling issue? Or is it, in the library science world or the taxonomy world, are there other near terms? Somebody types in that they're looking for a Bic, does it match that thing that has ink in it that allows people to write if the company itself or the repository doesn't sell the brand Bic? Does the search facility return results? Or does it just say "Nope, we don't have that"? We see that a lot in search facilities that require exact matches. Apple Music is one of the most notorious I use. I have huge number of music and yet it requires sequential matching of letters. So if I type in Rory Gallagher, for example, one of the best guitar players who ever lived, and I miss one of the Ls in Rory Gallagher or if I am thinking about the Irish pronunciation which is a lot softer in that G-H. And maybe I spell it G-A, L-A, G-E, or I leave that H off. Well, Apple is just doing a matching, just the sheer matching of letters. Ther 's no intelligence behind t. So understanding what the la guage is people use and the that helps understanding h w you approach that organi ation classification as well s the retrieval. One of the other aspects that is as tie into that is what we call wayf nding is not just what are the o jects that what are they calle , but where are they? And how Where are they going and how did they get there? And tying that do we know how to get there? I would say this to people, anybo y who says it has to be three licks or less just gets to immed ately go to jail, do not pass o, do not collect $200. Becaus that doesn't matter. What does atter is that it is sensible to o the places th back to the information that we have and helping people get there. I know there's this idea of semantic spreading where you have the initial idea that you have, but all the things around it are activated. Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the quotations that I have in my chapter is from a friend of ours, Jorge Arango, who said IA is the only activity, the only discipline concerned with the structural integrity of meaning across contexts. As you said, it's that context that that information exists, not just in a silo of information, and that's where a lot of companies make mistakes, is they do reposit, their information in silos, thinking everything just goes in this one thing, but not realizing that they are semantically connected, as you said.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. It's really funny, you mentioned context. That was one of the very first notes I took here in our conversation, even when you were introducing yourself, of how the importance of context and information architecture and how that helps people find what they need.

Joe Sokohl:

Absolutely. The idea of context, literally, the touching together of things, is critical to any sort of structured experience. There's another great book that Andrew Hinton wrote called Understanding Context, highly recommended, where he also introduces the work of JJ Murray and his wife whose name I'm blanking on right now, I'm sorry, they are couple of psychologists who worked on the concept of embodied cognition and that's a core concept in areas of UX, we don't spend enough time on it, but especially in information architecture. I know where I am based off my surroundings and my environment and I know where I can go, that's part of that, is that there was a sense of where you can go. Part of embodied cognition is being in the dark, reaching for the glass of water and knowing where it's going to be. There is muscle memory but there is cognitive perception of where that thing is or should be. Where frustration and anxiety occur is when those things are broken or they don't exist. When people go to reach for that water and knock it off, or their water isn't there, or it's a cactus.

Dan Berlin:

Yeah. So in digital experiences, this may manifest itself in the navigation and the wayfinding, as you mentioned, and folks trying to find what they're looking for there or in the search. What words are they using? What words are most popular? Or in everyday life? We're very familiar with wayfinding with just the signs around us. What else about information architecture? What else is important to convey here?

Joe Sokohl:

Well, I think the biggest thing is to be intentional and not to do it as an afterthought. Unfortunately, I was on a project that had wonderful visual design, it had great concepts of technology, and very complex mathematical, deep financial sort of models, but they had not thought about how this stuff was going to be organized. So they brought me in late in the game, and I had to try to pull things apart and put them back together. That's too hard to do. So, information architecture should be done intentionally and at the beginning.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. Well, it's similar to user research. We hear that a lot in terms of if we don't do user research and we build something it may not necessarily align with what users expect. What you're describing is the epitome of that, is the foundation of that, if we don't know how users think about the space that we're talking about, how can we design for it?

Joe Sokohl:

Exactly, exactly. I think that being intentional is critical in this. Do you hire an information architect, if you could find one? But more importantly, I think what you do is you practice good information architecture, in the sense that in a plastic architecture, so to speak physical architecture, you may not have an architect, but if you've got a good electrician, who also knows about spatial arrangement and the way people live, maybe you can use that person for that. There is this concept in architecture and in plastic architecture of that the meaning occurs around not just the building or the walls, but it's the lives lived within those. That's a paraphrasing a statement from Lao Tzu in the Taliesin West, that idea that these are lives. So when you think about concentrating on information architecture, it does come down to people. That's why user research is also so important. That's why a lot of the activities when we talk about doing information architecture, it means finding out what is the stuff that's around the inventory, and then saying, what are the stuff that we need to keep? Or what is the stuff that's redundant or trivial? Well, the only way to know that is to know who is going to be using it, and why they're going to be using it, when they're going to be using it, where they're going to be using it. All of those things are tied in and again in user research.

Dan Berlin:

How about documenting this? We start with user research and we want to get a great design going? How are you best conveying this to stakeholders and team members of what that is of how users are thinking about the information architecture?

Joe Sokohl:

Several different ways. Mostly it's diagrammatic, I would say. So, diagrams are the stuff of so much of what we do is, again, analogous to what plastic architects do. Not the only thing, we have to know our materials. That's very important to know what can stand up to our architecture, so to speak. But we do structures, we do hierarchies, we do lists, we do lots of spreadsheets, for inventorying. But the other thing is we do as part of our approach to user research is we do tree testing, where we present people with a problem and we give them a simple tree to find that answer to that problem. Then we simply look at what they did and analyze that. Did they find what we asked them to find? Or were we grossly off base? Then we ask why.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. In terms of that tree, just to clarify, that tree that we give them during tree studies is what that information architecture is, what those relationships are. Almost like what a navigation would look like on a website, but diagramming what the information is.

Joe Sokohl:

Exactly. And I do want to make sure that we're cautious that we take other contexts into account. If you think about voice interaction, how do you create an information architecture around voice? So it's not always just visual. How do you create an information architecture for a person who is sight deficient? How do you create an information architecture for someone who is using this sip and puff approach to navigation using a device that maneuvers the pointing device around the digital experience because they have muscular issues. And so that's where we again, based off of our knowledge of people, but we have to understand how much of the structure is sensible and in working memory. That's why one of my biggest tips for people is you have to know people as people. So information architecture is codified evidence shown in not only as diagrams, but also in other ways. I think that there's some more experimental work to be done around audio architectures and sensory architectures. We see that in the haptics that we have. For example, the watch that I wear when I'm on my motorcycle on a trip and I've got a route designed, it will vibrate when I'm supposed to take a turn. I have to remember where to go. But there is the hierarchy which is linear or a turn by turn. It's a beginning and an end. But there are those markers that that happens. Is that in architecture, or is that a interface? I don't know, all I know is we we want some.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. And working within the constraints that we have, I think that's a huge part of what you just said, whether the constraint is working memory, I think that's going to be the big part for most folks, seven items plus or minus. Especially in voice command, where we're not looking at something, we don't have something in front of us. So we have to remember what the order of operations is and what words we can use, and so forth.

Joe Sokohl:

Right. And that's unfortunately, one of the disappointments about so much of the voice interactions, is the limitations that are imposed upon us. In the same way, some of the manufacturers of assistive technology, this is a bit of a rant, but honestly there is an imperiousness to some of these that is not where again, they're forcing us to conform to them, instead of them conforming to us. I hope that it will improve over the years, that the technology itself will conform to the way people think and act. In system technology, there's very little consideration for that concept of information architecture. However, there is some improvements. We're seeing things, the concept of a rotary menu without going into all the details. Yet there are things for people who are low vision, being able to have menus that they can call up that will take them directly to certain aspects of the experience. That's interesting and promising within an IA concept.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. That sounds like a whole 'nother chapter in a new book of the IA of assistive technologies. Great. So thank you for all of that about information architecture and the background there and how it affects our users and how it should affect our designs and design processes. In our final moments here, how about a tip? How about a tip for our listeners about their UX career where they're just breaking into it or they've been here for a while?

Joe Sokohl:

Sure. Sure. I think that one of the things that I would love to see more people doing, and I see too few people doing, is understanding human factors. In the 80s, and 90s, human factors were the basis and even going back further, were an understanding of the physical, the cognitive, the biometric, nature of people's behavior, and how that affects their ability to do things. I would love to see people learning human factors. You don't have to go too deep, but pick up... there are a couple of recommendations. I have Marlana Coe wrote a great book in the 90s called "Human Factors for Technical Communicators" which was a big influence on me. But it still stands up the test of time. Christine Faulkner wrote "The Essence of Human-Computer Interaction." It's a great introduction to the Human Factors areas. I think we've lost a bit of the basics in the past 20 years of UX of understanding not only how people think and feel and behave, but also how their physiology has an impact on the experience. We see that in color vision and color vision theory. One of the subject matter experts on a project I'm doing right now is colorblind and literally sees shades of gray. When we talk about the items that are underlined in green are important and the items underlined in red, orange, and he said they look the same to me. Now, granted, that's very much of an education because of the numbers but how do we know those things? We have to understand how color vision works or how embodied cognition works, or we talk about Gestalt, but we don't really understand why Gestalt works. What are those principles of Gestalt? So I see so many of those things tied up into an area of Human Factors that would be really helpful for someone starting out, and revisiting for those of us who've forgotten.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. As someone with a psych background, I love hearing that because we do often talk about the behavioral and the cognitive, more behavioral, a little less cognitive, but never the physiological and we never talked about that and that is where color blindness comes in. That is where a lot of accessibility needs comes in. If we talked about it on the regular, then you should be talking about accessibility on the regular.

Joe Sokohl:

Absolutely.

Dan Berlin:

Well, Joe, this has been an awesome chat. I really appreciate you not only writing the chapter in the book, but taking the time to chat with me today. I hope you enjoyed this.

Joe Sokohl:

Dan, as always, it's been great. It's so great to chat about this. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about information architecture and all things UX.

Dan Berlin:

Awesome. Well, this has been a lot of fun and very informative. This has been the 97 UX Things Podcast, Dan Berlin, here, your host. I've been joined today by Joe Sokohl who wrote the chapter "Don't Forget About Information Architecture." Thanks for listening everyone. You've been listening to the 97 UX things podcast, a companion to the book 97 Things Every UX Practitioner Should Know published by O'Reilly and available at your local bookshop. All book royalties go to UX nonprofits, as well any funds raised by this podcast. The theme music is Moisturize the Situation by Consider the Source, Joshua Berlin is the podcast transcript editor, and I'm your host and book editor Dan Berlin. Please remember to find the needs in your community and fill them with your best work. Thanks for listening.