The IA of my kitchen, plus Jim Kalbach on Jobs to Be Done + other things worth your attention.
INFORMA(C)TION — July 25, 2021
The IA of my kitchen, plus Jim Kalbach on Jobs to Be Done + 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!
Cutlery - Knifes, Spoons, Forks. Photo: espensorvik (CC BY 2.0).

Everything in its Right Place

At its core, information architecture is about making meaningful distinctions. We set aside things from each other, categorize, group, sort them, etc., to find and understand them more easily. We do this all the time — and not just with digital information.

For example, you’ll find a particular pair of socks more quickly if your sock drawer is organized than if you dump them there in a loose mess. And categorizing and archiving your receipts up front can save you headaches come tax time.

In both cases, your future self is the beneficiary of your organizational foresight. It’s relatively easy to categorize things for yourself since you understand how you expect to find things. However, organizing things for (and with) other people is more challenging since you must understand the other’s mental models in addition to your own.

When we moved into our current house, my wife and I talked about where to store items in our kitchen. We had different kinds of things to put away: cutlery, pans, cups, dishes, various foodstuffs, etc. Some were large (e.g., sacks of flour) while others were small (e.g., meat thermometer.) The new kitchen had many drawers and cabinets. We wanted to store items in places where we’d quickly find them later.

The room’s arrangement suggested some groupings. Functionally, it made sense to store pots and pans near the stove since that’s where we’d use them most. In addition, there are two large drawers underneath the stove. So, it made sense to store pots and pans there.

Other decisions weren’t as easy. For example, our kitchen has several similarly-sized drawers, each of which could’ve served as cutlery storage. Since we use cutlery often, we picked a drawer close to the middle of the kitchen at a height we can access without bending down. Small items we don’t need as often (such as the meat thermometer) can go anywhere — but must still be findable.

So, we talked about it. “What if we put x here?” Sure, but wouldn’t it be better to save that drawer for y?” — and so on. During these conversations, we got a better sense of each other’s uses and expectations for these items — i.e., of each other’s mental models of kitchen work.

The first few days, we tried things out. We fumbled around the kitchen looking for things. We quickly got used to the cutlery drawer, but remembering where we put other items took more time. Living with the arrangement, we realized some things might be best stored elsewhere. We kept discussing it, making small tweaks. Eventually, we settled into an arrangement that satisficed our needs.

Now we take our kitchen for granted, but organizing it took time and effort. And it’s not finished. The arrangement evolves as our needs change. For example, when I bought a Sodastream, we had to figure out where to store replacement gas canisters. And when we got a dog, suddenly we had to find space for large bags of dog food. New items displace existing items as our priorities change; the organization scheme shifts and adjusts as our needs evolve.

I love Radiohead’s song Everything in its Right Place — it’s a sort of IA anthem, speaking to the generative aspects of primal distinction-making. But when I hear it, I'm reminded that “right” is relative: what’s right for me might not be right for you, and what’s right for both of us will change as conditions change over time. IA is never done; “obvious” organization schemes require ongoing effort — whether they're in digital or physical environments.

Worth Your Attention

  • Two types of work. Growth work involves making new things. Maintenance work involves caring for the resources and instruments that make growth work possible.
  • A taxonomy of toolkits. “A kit isn’t just a box of supplies; it’s a judiciously chosen collection of tools and materials designed to script a particular process, aimed to serve a particular purpose (or purposes, plural), and to do so with minimal waste and frustration.” (H/t Patrick Tanguay)
  • Sentiers newsletter. Speaking of Patrick Tanguay, I often discover new ideas and valuable insights through his newsletter, Sentiers. Recommended for the systems-minded.
  • The Alignment Problem. My notes on a recent book about building smart systems that reflect and respect human values.
  • Working on the iPad. I’ve long advocated for using iPads for work. But recently, I’ve started questioning the iPad’s role in my workflows.
  • Monocle. How Linus Lee builts a “universal personal search engine for life” over a weekend. (H/t Tom Critchlow)
  • An Ecology of Mind, “a film about how Gregory Bateson thought” by his daughter, Nora Bateson.
  • Addressing complexity through diversity. “When people in a team are similar, their knowledge and experience overlap. Without cognitive and demographic diversity, we become collectively blind, both to the core of the problem and to creative solutions.” (H/t Perry Hewitt)
  • Solutionism. Jason Crawford: “To embrace both the reality of problems and the possibility of overcoming them, we should be fundamentally neither optimists nor pessimists, but solutionists.”
  • The REALIST stack, “how software is eating the hardware-based world of things, and preparing it for existence on a terra being terraformed by energy and material transitions.” An insightful set of distinctions from Venkatesh Rao.

The Informed Life with Jim Kalbach

Episode 66 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Jim Kalbach. Jim is the Chief Evangelist at MURAL, and author of Designing Web Navigation (O'Reilly, 2007), Mapping Experiences (O'Reilly, 2016), and his latest, The Jobs to Be Done Playbook (Rosenfeld, 2020). In this conversation, we dive into Jobs to Be Done, how it relates to design, and how jobs can create an “out-of-body experience” for organizations.

The Jobs to Be Done Playbook was one of my favorite reads from 2020 (You can read my book notes), and was delighted to have had Jim on the show to tell us about JTBD. I hope you get as much value from our conversation as I did.

The Informed Life episode 66: Jim Kalbach on Jobs to Be Done

The Informed Life episode 66: Jim Kalbach

Listener Q&A

Do you have questions about how people organize information to get things done? How to structure messes so we can find and understand stuff?

I’m planning a listener Q&A episode of The Informed Life podcast. Please reply to this email with any questions you'd like me to tackle “on air.”

Parting Thought

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

— Steve Jobs

Thanks for reading! 🙏
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