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INFORMA(C)TION No. 75:

Meta-IA

Architecting the systems that architect the systems. Plus Kourosh Dini on DEVONthink and other things worth your attention.
Jorge ArangoJorge Arango
February 7, 2021

Welcome to INFORMA(C)TION, a biweekly newsletter about systems thinking, responsible design, information architecture, and other topics relevant to humans who create digital things.

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A Nigerian roadside shoemaker walking the streets in sandals
A roadside shoemaker walking the streets of Ilorin, Nigeria.
Photo by Jamie Tubers, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My friends Jesse James Garrett and Peter Merholz recently wrapped up the first season (my phrase) of their podcast Finding Our Way. The show is about “navigating the opportunities and challenges of design leadership,” and it takes form as an ongoing conversation between the co-hosts. (And occasional guests, including yours truly.)

Peter and Jesse are rendering a tremendous service to the design community by having these conversations in public. They're experienced practitioners reflecting on what they’ve learned both in their own journeys to design leadership and through advising other design leaders. If you haven't heard Finding Our Way, I encourage you to listen.

Episode 25 (“The Reckoning”) is especially worth your attention. In it, Peter and Jesse reflect on emerging themes in their conversation. An exchange early in that episode resonated strongly with me. Peter observed that “the crafts of (design) leadership are communication and information architecture.” He elaborated:

One of the words that I’m thinking about, it was spurred by some work I did with a client recently, is the word “enduring,” that which lasts, that which stands the test of time. And I think information architecture supports leadership that endures, and I use information architecture because I think — and maybe it’s been exacerbated by operating distributed and remotely through a pandemic — if leadership is about communication, leadership is then about information, and you need to be able to manage and structure and capture and make accessible that information that is your leadership. And you need to think about it intentionally.

To this, Jesse replied:

I think also leaders are, of necessity, orchestrators of systems, and systems instantiate knowledge as information architecture within them. So, the IA that gets embedded and coded, baked into your systems, becomes the way that the organization understands the world. And so, it is on the leader to imbue, infuse, enrich that IA with as complex and nuanced and understanding as they possibly can.

These are key ideas, and they’re easily missed. Information architecture isn’t only useful for structuring the products and services we’re designing; it can also be applied to the systems that bring them about. I don’t just mean the communications channels we use as a team, but also the patterns, distinctions, and contexts that frame the design process — i.e., the team’s information environment.

Taxonomies bound domains. How you structure your team’s understanding of its domain will have a tremendous impact on the team's effectiveness.

There are several dimensions to consider. The team’s understanding of the product’s customers and users is essential, of course. By default, we also clarify the subject matter, competitive landscape, value proposition, and other business context issues. These factors could be called ‘external-facing’ in that they impact the product as it’s perceived outside the organization.

There are also ‘internal-facing’ factors, such as the team’s relations with other groups in the organization. In some organizations — especially smaller ones — the role, scope, and agency of the design team are clearly defined. But I’ve also seen cases where the design team’s position isn’t clear at all: perhaps design is new to the organization, has new leadership, or the organization is restructuring. Whatever the case, the team finds itself unable to accurately read its bearings in an environment that may not be receptive to designerly ways of working.

In these cases, the team faces two challenges: making sense of the design mess and making sense of the organizational mess — or, more accurately, making sense of the mess of tackling a design mess within an organizational mess. This second challenge is harder to deal with and more important than the ‘plain old’ design mess. As Peter suggests in the excerpt above, the effects of effectively solving this second mess also tend to be long-lived. Structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel; good structures – i.e., those that offer good fit to evolving contexts – endure.

The same methods and artifacts that help us make sense of complex messes to improve our products’ UX can also help us make sense of the complex organizational messes that gestate those products. Given the pressures of delivering timely value to the organization, design teams must practice this meta-information architecture while simultaneously practicing ‘plain old’ information architecture. It’s a tall order, but one we must take seriously if we are to deliver on the potential of design in organizations.

Also worth your attention:

  • When designing a system, we want to understand how its users think about the subject domain, what the system needs to show them, and how it will be implemented. That is why we must consider three separate models.
     
  • “… when software becomes part of society, all of society’s problems get expressed in software.” Benedict Evans on regulating tech.
     
  • Complex maladaptive systems. (H/t Tim O'Reilly)
     
  • Mark Hurst is losing faith in UX; Scott Berkun offers suggestions on how to restore it.
     
  • Browser maker Vivaldi introduced a new tab stacking feature. (Would you use this?)
     
  • “Microsoft Viva isn’t an app or even a service but more of a platform for improving remote work and helping businesses adjust to it.” Does Microsoft’s new work platform herald a revival of the intranet?
     
  • When I sit to watch something on one of the streaming video services, I often find myself unable to choose. There’s so much there! Later this year, Netflix will release a shuffle play feature that should help those of us paralyzed by choice. (Maybe this is also a way of restoring serendipity to television?)
     
  • Birdwatch, an intriguing initiative from Twitter to combat misinformation on the platform through community participation.
     
  • Interactive Principles: “a deck of learning science principles for designing educational games.” Applicable to other domains as well. (H/t Christina Wodtke, via Stephen P. Anderson)
     
  • A team of volunteers is building a virtual theme park featuring defunct real-world attractions. The first to be finished: Walt Disney World’s long-departed (and much missed) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage. (This might be the nudge I needed to buy a VR headset.)
     
The Informed Life Episode 54: Kourosh Dini

Episode 54 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and productivity expert Kourosh Dini. Over the last couple of years, I've been using DEVONthink as a knowledge management repository. DEVONthink is a powerful and complex tool, and I only really started to see real productivity gains in using it after I read Kourosh's book, Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink, so I wanted to know how Kourosh uses the tool.

The goal is to have an external idea repository that makes it easy to spark connections. As Kourosh described it,

You want the ideas to be able to come to you when and where they are useful to you, and you want them to stay out of the way otherwise.

I learned important insights from Kourosh on how to structure one of the key environments in which I think about structuring information environments. I hope this conversation is as valuable to you as it was to me.

The Informed Life Episode 54: Kourosh Dini on DEVONthink

Parting thought:

We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.

— Norbert Wiener

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

P.S.: If you like this newsletter, please forward it to a friend. (If you're not subscribed yet, you can sign up here.)

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Jorge Arango
Boot Studio LLC
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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