A recipe for distinction-making, plus Mags Hanley on career architecture + other things worth your attention.
INFORMA(C)TION — August 22, 2021
A recipe for distinction-making, plus Mags Hanley on career architecture + other things worth your attention.
Hello! I'm Jorge Arango and this is INFORMA(C)TION: a biweekly dose of big ideas for people who make digital things. If you like this email, please forward it to a friend. And if you're not subscribed, sign up here. Thanks for reading!
Dried cacao beans
Cocoa farmer David Kebu Jr. holding the finished product, dried cocoa beans ready for export. Photo by Irene Scott/AusAID (CC BY 2.0)

Sweet Distinctions

I love hot cocoa. A friend taught me a great recipe: cocoa powder + maple syrup + homemade cashew cream + hot water. I add a pinch of cayenne pepper for bite. (Cashew cream: soak unroasted/unsalted cashews overnight in water, then liquefy them in a Vitamix.)

Before you try to make this, you need to be aware of an important distinction. In American grocery stores, you’ll find two kinds of cocoa: cocoa mix and cocoa powder. They’re not the same.

Based on the selection of brands and varieties, cocoa mix seems to be more popular. You’ll find it in the same aisle as coffee and tea — i.e., the store assumes that if you want to drink cocoa, you want cocoa mix.

It’s a safe assumption. If you want a cup of hot cocoa, the mix is more convenient: it includes powdered sweetener, creamer, and (in some cases) frills such as freeze-dried marshmallows. You simply add hot water, et voilà — a sweet cup of cocoa.

That’s not what you want for this recipe. Instead, you want cocoa powder, which is just the primary ingredient without the extra stuff.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes cocoa powder:

Dry cocoa solids are the components of cocoa beans remaining after cocoa butter, the fatty component of the bean, is extracted from chocolate liquor, roasted cocoa beans that have been ground into a liquid state. Cocoa butter is 46% to 57% of the weight of cocoa beans and gives chocolate its characteristic melting properties. Cocoa powder is the powdered form of the dry solids with a small remaining amount of cocoa butter. Untreated cocoa powder is bitter and acidic.

See that last sentence? That's why many folks find the taste of plain cacao unpleasant. It's also why you won’t find it in the drinks aisle; you must look for cocoa powder under baking supplies instead. (Cocoa is a key ingredient in cakes, cookies, brownies, etc.)

Having both cocoas in the same aisle could be confusing since they come in similar packages: they’re both sold in bags or cans, prominently brown, with the word “cocoa” spelled out in large letters. Small(er) print tells you which type you’re getting.

Recently, my wife bought an unfamiliar brand of cocoa powder. The can clarifies the distinction with the following label: Baking Cocoa, with the word “baking” rendered as large as “cocoa.”

A few days ago, my daughter wanted to make hot cocoa. She looked in the pantry and said, “We’re out of cocoa.” I replied, “Mama just bought some.” My daughter looked again and said, “But we seem only to have baking cocoa.”

I explained that “baking” cocoa is what we’ve been using all along; it’s just that most people use it for baking. This cleared things up. But it made me think about the perils of limiting distinction-making to labels.

Cocoa powder manufacturers are in a bind: they must clarify what kind of cocoa you’re buying. Ideally, they’d call plain cocoa simply “cocoa,” with no other labels. But this would confuse people who think of cocoa as cocoa mix. (I expect this is the norm.)

Many alternatives are ambiguous. “Cocoa powder” itself isn’t really helpful — other than by convention — since cocoa mix also comes in powder form by default.

Conversely, manufacturers could label cocoa mix as “drinkable” cocoa. But that would be ambiguous, too, since you can make hot cocoa using cocoa powder, as with my friend's recipe. And again, this wouldn’t help people who expect cocoa mix when they see plain “cocoa.”

That leaves manufacturers with the somewhat confusing option of using a narrower term (“baking” cocoa) for the version of the product that has broader uses. (I.e., you can make hot cocoa using cocoa powder, but cocoa mix can only be used to make hot cocoa.)

Understanding the distinction calls for grokking context (e.g., what aisle is the product in?) and social cues (having someone explain that “baking” cocoa is suitable for more than just baking despite what the label says.) It’s not ideal, but I can’t think of a better alternative.

How many of our labels are compromises of this sort? How might we make things clearer through the mindful use of context and social cues? These things matter: careful distinction-making can be the difference between a bitter or sweet outcome. 😜

Worth Your Attention

  • Disambiguation. Bob Kasenchak offers two strategies for establishing clear distinctions between terms in a taxonomy.
  • The “ethnic” aisle in supermarkets: does it serve a purpose or is it an anachronism?
  • New Apple Store page. The world's largest tech company reconsiders the architecture of its online store.
  • Taxonomies and sitemaps. Heather Hedden: “just because a sitemap is as large and detailed as a taxonomy needs to be does not make it suitable as a taxonomy.”
  • IA and sacred space. Dan Klyn: “how does the situatedness of information affect meaning?”
  • IA Lenses. Dan Brown's ongoing interview series about information architecture, based on his IA Lenses card deck.
  • Tech stack migration. Insights into how 21st Century Fox migrated its technology stack after being acquired by Disney — a rare opportunity to wipe the slate clean. (H/t Benedict Evans)
  • Twitter UI redesign. Some users had trouble with how “Follow” buttons are rendered in the new interface. My take: it's a semiotic issue.
  • How Buildings Learn. A good summary of the classic book about how complex systems change over time. (H/t Stewart Brand)
  • The case for optimism. Kevin Kelly: “Civilization is a worthy goal to aim for. To build a better civilization, optimism is the most rational, realistic and helpful stance to take right now.” ❤️

The Informed Life with Mags Hanley

Episode 68 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Mags Hanley. Over her 25-year career, Mags has had leadership roles in information architecture, product management, and user experience design. Now, she's helping designers find their career paths and build leadership and IA skills. In this conversation, we discuss Career Architecture, the focus of her current coaching work and subject of her upcoming book.

The Informed Life Episode 68 — Mags Hanley on Career Architecture

The Informed Life episode 68: Mags Hanley

Parting Thought

An informational nudge changes the nature of information available – labelling unhealthy snacks, for example – while a structural nudge changes the courses of actions available, such as moving these same snacks out of easy reach. The informational nudge is weaker than the structural nudge, but more respectful of free choice.

— Cennydd Bowles, Future Ethics

Thanks for reading! 🙏
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