2014 Main Conference Talk
Before an architect designs a building, she must first understand the environment for which it will be designed: the plot size, shape, and location; the conditions of the ground; exposure to the elements; access to essentials like water and sewage lines; traffic patterns, and more. Only after she’s carefully measured and analyzed the place can she propose a meaningful and practical intervention.
Information architects must also understand the environment we will be designing for. However, ours is not a physical environment but one made of signs: instead of earth, vegetation, roads, and neighboring buildings, we deal with words, ideas, rules, roles, and relationships. Ours are semantic environments, and just like architects do, we must thoroughly understand them before we start proposing designs that change them.
This presentation will introduce the concept of the semantic environment, as it has been developed in the field of general semantics, and will teach you a method for mapping the various semantic environments that affect your project. I will argue that one of the information architect’s responsibilities it to avoid polluting these environments, and will show you specific ways in which you can do this.
In this presentation, you will learn:
- What the semantic environment is, and why it’s important to your projects.
- How to avoid polluting the semantic environment.
- How to create a map of your project’s various semantic environments.
- How that map can inform the design of a cross-channel information architecture.
- How my team helped develop a cross-channel IA for a service-focused organization by using this technique.
About the speaker(s)
Jorge Arango is an information architecture and strategic designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the author of Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places (Two Waves Publishing, 2018) and co-author of Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond (O’Reilly, 2015). In addition to his consulting practice, he also teaches in the interaction design program at the California College of the Arts.
Jorge Arango: Hello folks. Good morning. Thank you for being here as opposed to outside in the beautiful San Diego sunshine. My name is Jorge. I recently moved to California, and I was surprised to discover that people here don’t just recycle. They separate waste into garbage, recyclables, and compost. In Panama, we had a single bin where we dumped everything, and then we crossed our fingers.
Jorge: My family and I are in the process of learning this new taxonomy of trash.
Jorge: We’re only doing this because over the past 50 years or so, the developed world has rediscovered the importance of the impact of our interventions in the physical environment. We now realize that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our environment, and that we should do everything we can to curb those practices which damage this environment. As obvious as this sounds now, this realization is fairly recent.
It’s only come to the fore after the Second World War, as we started paying the price for this unchecked industrialization. This photograph is from the great London smog of 1952, which claimed between 4,000 and 12,000 lives and sickened 100,000 people. This is the Los Angeles Civic Center in 1948.
This is the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which was so polluted that it burst into flames more than once. This all happened within many of our parents’ lifetimes. It wasn’t that long ago. Disasters like these, the publication of critical books like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and the counter-culture movement of the 1960s led to a renewed concern with environmental issues.
Which brings us to this guy, this is Woodsy Owl. He was created in 1970 by the US Forest Service to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the environment. His slogan, “Give a hoot. Don’t pollute,” was meant to get people to interact more conscientiously with their physical environment. As you can see from my California experience, Woodsy has been very successful in his mission.
I wanted to bring him along to tell you about caring for a different type of environment that we live in, the semantic environment. However, in 1974, the US Congress passed Public Law 93-318, also known as the Woodsy Owl Act, which protects Woodsy’s image. I’ve asked Woodsy’s cousin, Wordsy…
Jorge: …To join us instead, and Wordsy will be prompting us from time to time with points to keep in mind as we learn to appreciate and protect the semantic environment.
But first things first Allow me to give you an overview of what’s on the menu for our time together today. First I’ll tell you why I care about this topic and why I think you should care too. Then I’ll talk a little bit about general semantics, which is the field that prompted many of these ideas. Next I’ll explain what a semantic environment is.
With this framework in place, we’ll talk pathologies, especially the difference between crazy talk and stupid talk. Then I’ll show you a way to use this framework to map semantic environments so that you can avoid making stupid or crazy changes to the environment.
We’ll end with a coda — my own little one more thing. So are you ready? Yeah? All right, cool. Why are we having this conversation? I’m glad to be in the slot after Andrew, because you had a slide almost identical to this.
About 12 years ago, I was already a few years into my career as a digital designer, having transitioned from building architecture. I had already ready Wurman and the polar bear book and I had self-identified as an information architect. I was online looking for my tribe, and I came across this organization called the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, what is today known as the IA Institute.
I knew some of the folks behind it from mailing lists and such, so I was already attracted to it to begin with. But I was particularly struck by the About Us page on the Institute’s website. It included a definition of IA that resonated deeply both with my background and experience. It said that IA is the structural design of information environments.
As an architect, I loved the idea of designing structures for information environments, because this offered suggestions on how I could apply my background to this new area of practice. However, I was always clearer on the structural design half of this sentence than on the information environments side.
What exactly is an information environment? After all, you could show this exact same sentence to an IT engineer and she could say that this is what they do. So I’ve spent many years trying to understand what exactly we mean by this. For most of my career, the dominant medium that we’ve been working with is the World Wide Web.
However, this picture has become more complicated as new information access mechanisms, like tablets and smartphones, have become more popular, and have allowed us to interact with these information places in different contexts.
At last year’s summit, I told you that I believe that one of the most important benefits that IA provides is the ability to convey meaning across multiple contexts. This statement raises many questions, especially in light of this concept of designing for information environments.
But foremost in my mind are, “What is the relationship between this phrase ‘information environments’ and contexts, in the sense that we’ve been using it?” And also, “How can you convey meaning effectively across contexts?” This word “meaning” is particularly tricky. Things have different meanings for different people, in different times and situations.
It’s slippery stuff, and we’re supposed to produce structures and ensure that meaning is effectively conveyed. I know that many people are turned off by discussions of semantics. I usually end up in these flame wars in Twitter about it. It may be that you are, too. However, I think it’s important for us to think about this stuff, because, as Andrew told us this morning, language is our basic building material.
I’ve been thinking about information environments, meaning, and how we can enable understanding, the transmission of meaning, through information environments. This led me to a field called general semantics and the concept called the semantic environment, which is very close to what I understand information environments to be.
I will share some of what I’ve learned with you today. I know that there are other fields that talk about this stuff. Talking with David [inaudible 07:09] earlier, there’s certainly stuff in anthropology, but this is the stuff that I’ve been looking at. I’ve found a lot of value here. That’s what I’m going to share with you today.
General semantics was started in the 1920s by a Polish-American philosopher and scientist called Alfred Korzybski. He had this lofty goal; he wanted to develop a framework that would allow us to alter human behavior in the direction of greater sanity. Because language influences our thinking, and thinking influences our behavior, language is the core concern of general semantics.
You may have heard the saying, “The map is not the territory.” Certainly, it’s been shown in many slides here, at the IA Summit. This is Korzybski’s best-known statement. It is one of the main tenets of general semantics. However, he issued a longer version, which is more convoluted, but I think also more useful for our purposes.
He said that “The map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” You’ll note two things. There is a concern here with structural integrity, and there is a concern for usefulness.
This focus on usefulness is important, because general semantics is concerned with the way that individuals interpret meaning through the way we use language, rather than with the transmission of meaning in the abstract. This sounds a bit ethereal, so let me give you an example. Imagine that a patient has gone to an appointment with his surgeon, where he will be told the results of a biopsy.
Sitting in on the case is a hospital statistician, who is keeping records on the results of biopsies in the hospital. The surgeon delivers the news. She says, “This is cancer.” These three people are going to interpret these same three words very differently. The patient is probably devastated, scared, anxious. The surgeon is finding ways of comforting the patient, and probably making treatment plans.
The statistician probably just checks a box and moves on to the next case. They have different levels of involvement with this situation. The field of semantics is concerned with studying the symbols that comprise the statement, “This is cancer,” and what they mean.
General semantics, on the other hand, is concerned with how the human beings involved in the situation react to and derive meaning from these symbols, which we call language. In general semantics, language is considered a distinctly human ability, one that sets us apart in the world.
It postulates that life forms can be organized into three basic categories, which have expanded in scope over time. Plants, which were the first to appear on the scene, are energy-binders. Their major contribution was figuring out how to transform nutrients and sunlight and water into energy via chemical reactions.
Animals added the ability to move around, thus establishing a more complex relationship with their surroundings. Because of this, we say that they are space-binders. You’ll notice that they are also energy-binders. It becomes aggregated. Our species opened the third category. We are time binders.
Because we have language, we can learn from the past. Language is central to what we are. It has enabled us to build and learn and grow from each other and from people who came before us. You could argue that some animals are capable of simple language. However, as far as we know, animals are not capable of abstraction.
Abstraction enables you to think and talk about things beyond the here and now, beyond the concrete. For example, if you think about it, you can’t really take a photograph of a musician. If you want to illustrate a musician, you have to step down at least one level of abstraction to show something like a guitarist, which is a more concrete type of musician.
However, we can talk about music and musicians as abstract concepts, and that’s very useful to us. We can easily go up and down levels of abstraction, and we do so all the time. If you’ve ever searched for stock photos, you know how useful this can be. However, we have to be careful because at the higher levels of abstraction, things are more open to interpretation.
Also, we carry inside us representations of the world made from these abstractions. This is a map that Korzybski is talking about. We have to be careful not to be seduced into believing that the representation and the thing being represented are the same thing. As new ideas and things appear in the world, language evolves.
We don’t usually learn new words by looking them up in the dictionary. Instead, we see them used in different contexts, and, little by little, figure out what they are and aren’t referring to. To illustrate, let me share with you a word that has been around for a long time, but which I only learned a couple of years ago.
This word, “skeuomorphic,” has been used a lot in our circles recently. The first time I saw it was in a blog post by Adam Greenfield. I had no prior reference to it, so it took me a while to actually get it. I was a little baffled at first. After much reading, I now think that it means something like this, “An object or design which provides visual affordances by superfluously copying characteristics of older designs.”
That’s a pretty complicated idea to get in your mind without having to looking it up in the dictionary, but it’s something that happens. The other thing is that a skeuomorphic design became a thing that we talk about. We developed the need for a word to describe its opposite. The word that we collectively chose, “flat,” is not an obscure word like skeuomorphic.
It’s already widely used and infused with meaning. It brings with it all sorts of associations that, in my opinion, are unhelpful when we’re trying to describe UI designs. For example, the IOS7 UI, one of the more famous flat designs, is not flat at all. As a matter of fact, layering in thec-Axis is its core differentiator. It does it a disservice to call it flat, but it’s not skeuomorphic either.
When describing iOS7, we are trapped by a duality in language. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing about the term skeuomorphic that suggests that it sits at the opposite end of a continuum with flat. I can think of many other terms that would fit just as well. However, the fact that flat became the accepted term has reinforced the use of a particular aesthetic over other possible ones.
In other words, the words that we use to describe and categorize things have an impact, not just on how we see the world, but on how we shape it. Many problems in the world are ultimately problems of classification and nomenclature. Society regards as true those systems of classification which produce the desired results, even though those results and objectives may, in fact, be atrocious.
What we name things and people has a huge impact on our experiences and interactions with the world and with each other. This brings us to Wordsy’s first admonition. What I’m going to do is, when these come up, I’m going to ask you all to do it with me. I’m going to say, “Wordsy says,” and you’re going to say, “Give a hoot.”
Jorge: Wordsy says, “Give a hoot.” Can we do it louder? Wordsy says, “Give a hoot.”
Audience: Give a hoot.
Jorge: Remember, when you name something, you constrain what it can and can’t be. Now that we’ve gotten through some of the basics of general semantics, let’s focus on this idea of the semantic environment, which came out of general semantics. The framework I’ll be presenting was described by media theorist Neil Postman in his book, “Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk.
It has long been out of print, but it’s highly readable and very useful. If you find anything that I speak about from now on in the rest of this presentation, you should really look this up. Postman explains that traditionally we thought of communication as something that happens like a ping pong game where I say something, you listen to it, somehow process it, then say something back.
Then I listen, process it, and then I say something back, and so on. He suggests that communication is not like this at all. Instead of something we do, communication is something that we participate in, much like a plant participates in what we call its growth. Growing is not something that the plant does by itself. It happens to it as it is exposed to nutrients, sunlight, and water.
Growth is the result of the plant’s exposure and interaction with its environment, and so it is with human communication. What are the earth, sun and water of this environment that enables communication? Postman lists four basic components.
The first is the people who participate in the situation, their purposes in the situation, the rules of discourse by which they achieve those purposes, and the language that is appropriate to that environment. To illustrate, let’s look at two different semantic environments, religion and science.
Each has its own goals, rules and vocabulary. People participate in each for different reasons, and the language that is appropriate in church would probably get you kicked out of a research lab. Semantic environments can also have sub-environments with rules and vocabularies of their own.
The Catholic church has something called the confessional, which has its own particular rule set and vocabulary that you wouldn’t use in the church as a broader construct. Much trouble in the world is caused by people who do not understand what semantic environment they’re actually participating in as we can see from the constant clashes between people who wish to enforce the goals, rules and terminology of religion within the realm of science and vice versa.
Semantic environments are inherently different, and it is this differentiation that makes it possible for us to achieve our goals through them, so this is critically important. When this differentiation starts to be blurred, for example, if you try to use the rules and terminology of religion within scientific discourse, we say that the semantic environment is becoming polluted.
By this, we mean it in the same sense as pollution in the physical environment. All environments contain some degree of foreign or un-assimilable matter.
However, when there is too much un-assimilable matter in the environment, it becomes incapable of achieving its purposes, whether it is sustaining life or communicating meaning. Wordsy says, give a hoot. Pay attention to the semantic environment. You can start by thinking about this situation we’re currently in, and how it fits the description of a semantic environment.
I’m talking about this presentation. Let’s look more closely at the parts that make up the semantic environment. People are a subject unto itself, and mainly out of our control. I will not be talking much about them today. Suffice it to say that we all parse situations through various filters, which mold our individual experiences and influence the way we understand and communicate with each other.
Let’s talk purposes, which is something we can actually understand and help support through our work. What we mean by purpose is best illustrated by example. Let’s think again about the semantic environment that we call science. You could say that one of the primary purposes of science is to increase human knowledge through observation.
The rules, relationship, and vocabulary employed in this environment, for example, the peer review process that leads to publication in journals, like science, support and enable this purpose. There can be no meaningful concept of good or bad language without consideration for the purpose of the environment. What is good in one environment is bad in another.
For example, the objective, unambiguous, detached, tentative, public language that is good for a scientific environment would be disastrous for a romantic stroll on the beach. Wordsy says, give a hoot. Good talk does what it’s supposed to do in a particular situation. As long as the situation serves rational and humane purposes.
Most information environments have more than one purpose. Sometimes, these purposes are in alignment. For example, the semantic environments employed by research scientists allow them to advance their chosen fields and advance their careers without conflict. However, we often find environments where two or more purposes are in conflict with each other.
For example, our mainstream news media have a hypothetical purpose of providing relevant, reliable news coverage. However, most of them have an actual purpose of making money for shareholders, primarily through advertising. Relevant, concerned news is not the best eyeball-magnet for advertising.
Many news outlets have devolved into semantic environments that use the language and role structures of news media while bombarding us with much content that is of questionable value. Wordsy says, give a hoot. Be on the lookout for conflict between hypothetical and actual purposes.
Just like semantic environments have purposes, they also have special rules by which those purposes can be achieved. Many of these rules have evolved out of cultural convention. For example, not all situations can employ the same tone. If you’re in a sports stadium, you can whoop and holler and make a racket, but that would be totally inappropriate in a wedding reception.
Jorge: In some that I’ve been to, maybe, not so much.
Jorge: In another example, in Spanish, we have two words that can be used to address people. “Tu,” which is the familiar “you,” and “Usted,” which is more formal and honorific. Which one of these two you use depends on who you’re talking with, and in what context, and there are rules about that. Wordsy says, give a hoot.
Understand the tone that is most appropriate for the environment. A whole different set of rules has to do with role structures. These are the relationships of power between the people participating in the semantic environment. Think of your relationship with airport security agents. Everything about that environment has been designed to disempower you, the passenger, and empower the agent.
You can’t even joke about it. Other environments have much more fluid role structures. For example, if you are hanging out with your friends. There are no rules to which people are more sensitive than those of role structure. They are also resistant to change over time. When there is a conflict between authority and vocabulary, authority usually wins.
Because of this, understanding the role structures of the environment is extremely important. Wordsy says, give a hoot. Understand the role structures that influence the environment. We’ve talked about purposes and rules. Now, let’s talk about the words we use. Every semantic environment has a set of words that has a special meaning within that environment. We call this a technical vocabulary.
For example, in 2010, Ethan Marcotte introduced the word “responsive” into the semantic environment of the web design community. It’s a term that helps us talk about important new concepts. It serves a very important purpose. It has caught on and become a part of our technical vocabulary.
Often, words mean something in one environment and have a completely different meaning in another. The meaning of “responsive” in the environment of the web design community is different from its meaning in an environment like healthcare, where it is also part of the technical vocabulary. Wordsy says, give a hoot.
Be on the lookout for the technical vocabulary that is particular to the semantic environment that you’re working with. When dealing with semantic environments, you also have to be on the lookout for what Postman calls keywords. These are simple, nontechnical words which appear in every semantic environment, but whose meanings shift as the words pass from one context to another.
Think, for example, of the word “law.” The fact that this word means something in the Judeo-Christian tradition and something else when talking about the legal system causes a great deal of trouble and confusion. Here’s another example from a famous sentence you may have heard before. “What is good for General Motors is good for America.”
This presupposes that the word “good” on both sides of that sentence means the same thing, but clearly the sentence is referring to two different semantic environments. That of business and that of the nation-state. It’s not necessarily true, and probably not true, that “good” means the same thing in those. Wordsy says, give a hoot.
Look out for keywords. They can be deceptively simple and may throw you for a loop. Finally, let’s talk about metaphors. Metaphors include both technical terms and keywords, but impose a particular imagery or point of view into a situation.
For example, throughout this presentation, I’ve been asking you to think of communication as something that happens in an environment and have equated pollution in the physical environment with pollution in the semantic environment. This is obviously a metaphor.
While this imagery is useful to help us convey this idea, we have to be wary of the fact that no metaphor is perfect and that our thinking can become limited by the metaphor’s affordances. Wordsy says, give a hoot. Pay attention to the metaphors that shape the semantic environment. Are you paying attention? You’re not paying attention.
Jorge: To recap, the semantic environment consists of people, their purposes, the rules of discourse by which such purposes are achieved, and the particular language that is being used in the situation. Wordsy says, give a hoot. You’re going to be making changes to this environment, so don’t screw it up. Exactly how do you screw it up?
Postman presents two pathologies, what he calls “crazy talk” and “stupid talk.” Let’s look at the differences. We’ll start with stupid talk. Postman defines it as communication that has “a confused direction, or an inappropriate tone, or a vocabulary not well-suited to its context.” In other words, you’re saying the right words, but in the wrong tone or in the wrong place or situation.
Because of this, it just doesn’t work. Stupid talk usually has good intentions but fails to deliver. Think, for example, of a street-corner preacher. I’m sure you’ve seen these folks hanging around in busy urban intersections, screaming for salvation at the top of their lungs while people just walk past them.
The language and tone that they’re using would not be inappropriate in a church, but because the other participants in the environment have other purposes, they just choose to ignore him and walk past, without getting the message. When I say “stupid,” it’s important to keep in mind that I’m not saying that the people involved are stupid. I mean that the semantic environment itself is stupid.
You can have very smart people on both sides, but if the environment doesn’t support meaning-transmission, they’re just not going to make sense of each other. Let me give you another example, and this one from my career. I once did a heuristic-usability study of an online banking platform. In this system, there was one button that was very important.
It was the button that took the user back to the home screen, where all the accounts are. This button was present in every transactional screen. The team that built the application used the word “consolidated” for the button’s label. This term was a part of the technical vocabulary used inside the bank.
I had never seen it used before in this context, and I suspected that other people would have trouble with it, too. I brought this issue up with the team, and they were convinced that it wasn’t confusing, because they knew the term. I suggested that we test it with users, and of course, no one got it. The label that the actual users suggested was “My Accounts.”
We made this change and improved the usability of the platform considerably. The platform team had been forcing a term that was clear in one environment, that of their IT group, into another where it wasn’t, the general public. This was stupid. It was done with good intentions, but it didn’t work.
Crazy talk is something else entirely. Again, I’m going to quote Postman. It is “talk that may be entirely effective, but which has unreasonable, or evil, or sometimes, overwhelmingly trivial purposes. It is talk that creates an irrational context for itself or sustains an irrational conception of human interaction.”
In other words, it is talk that works as intended, but it has questionable intentions. This is the territory of euphemisms and corporate double-speak. Let me give you another example. Before coming out here, I stopped by a Fed Ex office to ship some documents to my office back in Panama.
Because they weren’t urgent, and because I’m cheap, I selected the package service labeled “Fed Ex International Economy.” When I went to pay, the agent behind the counter told me that if I selected Fed Ex International Priority, it would actually be cheaper for me to send the package. He seemed a little baffled about the labeling, too.
Obviously, if I hadn’t been helped by the agent, this labeling system would have led me to overpay. English is not my native language, but I think this is crazy.
Jorge: The corporate world is chock-a-block with sweet examples of this kind of thing. Is there anyone from Coca-Cola here? I can speak freely.
Jorge: Coca-Cola has a very nice website that describes their social responsibility initiatives. It features large photos of attractive people being physically active in natural surroundings. This website has a section called “Balanced Living,” which includes information about calories and obesity.
I’ve heard that there’s this thing called an obesity epidemic here in the US, and that sweet, carbonated drinks are one of the main culprits. I was very curious about what Coca-Cola had to say about it. This is where I learned that I’m getting fat from eating chicken.
Jorge: I thought, “This can’t be. Where are the sodas”? I decided to track down the source of the information, which isn’t hard to do. You’ll notice that there is a little footnote there. This particular bit comes from the “2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans” published by the USDA.
I downloaded this document and found out that, sure enough, the top three culprits are cakes, breads and chicken dishes. But guess what number four is?
Jorge: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Coca-Cola website presents only the top three and that it does so in a context that appears to be educational, transparent and neutral. I think this is crazy. I’ll summarize the difference between them by again quoting Postman. “Talk is stupid when it does not work. Talk is crazy when, in working, it creates and sustains an irrational purpose.”
I think that fixing stupid talk is our professional responsibility. I think that fixing crazy talk is our ethical responsibility. “Words,” he says, “give a hoot.” Your job is to fix craziness or stupidity when you find it. Now that we’ve seen the theory, I’m going to show you an example of how you can take these ideas out into the field and use them to help make better IA decisions.
This is a technique that my team and I have used at the beginning of projects to map the semantic environments that make them up. The particular examples I will be showing are from a project to design a cross-channel IA for a sales driven IT services company.
At the beginning of the project, we asked the client to set up workshop-style meetings with different groups of people who interact in their processes. This includes internal people as well as their clients. In these workshops, we try to identify how many semantic environments we’re going to be dealing with and have both parties map them.
Then we consolidate these maps. We started the workshops by explaining to the participants the concept of the semantic environment, much like I’m doing here with you today and the nature of the exercise. Then, as a group, we ask them questions such as these. Who’s going to be in the process? What questions do you ask? What language do you use, both positively and negatively, and stuff like that.
All their answers go on sticky notes which go on our wall in no order. Then we start trying to spot patterns for things that look like they belong together in different semantic environments. We set up a flipchart for each one of the environments we identify, and we start moving the sticky notes to them in a particular structure, which is this.
It’s a grid that has actors or the people involved in one quadrant, the rules that we have to identify, the goals, and the words. The cone that has the actors and goals, we divide into two. We want to capture on one side the things that pertain to one party, so our clients, and in the other side, the actors and goals that pertain to their clients, so the other party.
This is because both parties have different people and purposes in these environments. We want to understand their perception of what the other party will want. We will be repeating this exercise with the client’s client so that we get their perspectives as well. When these mapping exercises are done, we consolidate the responses into individual maps that include the perspective of both parties.
Note that we have two cones here, also for rules and vocabulary. This is because we’re capturing things that are negative and positive, in other words, things that help them reach their goals and things that hinder them. We’ve also added a row to document both current and possible interaction channels.
As I have hinted, we are mapping multiple semantic environments and sub-environments. We want to get as specific as possible. For example, in this case, we had a semantic environment at the beginning of the relationship with a prospect when executives are involved from both parties.
We also had a separate environment from when they had actually, or were about to, sign the contract, because then the legal people and the financial people enter the picture. They all had different objectives and goals and vocabularies and stuff, and we want to map those. Seeing these maps side by side helps you see if the technical vocabulary and rules match up for both parties across the board and if there are any gaps that you need to fill in.
You can also spot roadblocks and opportunities. In doing this, we identified that the word monitor was a potential keyword because it had a meaning that was positive for our client, and it had a meaning that was negative for their clients. It’s very useful to know those things up front. It’s worth noting that there aren’t any boundaries between the semantic environments.
They inform and influence each other, sometimes in sequence, and they are never fully complete. The value in the process comes from raising the questions and identifying unmet challenges and opportunities in language. I’ll recap what we’ve learned here today. Understanding happens in semantic environments. These environments can be polluted, turning stupid or crazy.
You can help reduce the stupidity and craziness in the world. The first step is to map the semantic environments that you’ll be working in. For the last time, I’m going to say, “Wordsy says, give a hoot.”
Jorge: Map before you yap.
Jorge: I will close with one final thought. I believe that understanding and shaping semantic environments are critical steps in the development of an information architecture. These things are central to what we do. Like I said, I came to it from general semantics. I’m sure that there are other techniques like these. Many of us a probably even doing it without calling it such.
Many of you are doing a good job at it. However, I think that we’re not doing a very good job of understanding and influencing the semantic environments that pertain to how we explain this to our clients, our peers and other disciples, and to the world at large. By applying some of these ideas onto the field of information architecture itself, we can make some headway in this direction.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Just last week, I had the fabulous opportunity to see a live debate between two people that I admire tremendously, my friend Dan Klein, who is sitting right there, and Matt Nish-Lapidus from the IXDA. Each of them did a very good job of framing the disciplines of IA and interaction design respectively and arguing the merits of their views.
I got a great deal of value from this discussion. I only bring it up here because it reminded me that, as far as I can recall, we’ve been thinking of these two areas of focus in a parallel role. This view goes way back, and it was reinforced in Jesse James Garrett’s milestone IA Summit plenary in Memphis where he spoke of the two professions in a way that makes them sound like sister disciplines.
If you weren’t there, I’ll quote Jesse. He said, “There are no information architects. There are no interaction designers. There are only, and, only ever have been, user experience designers.” This suggests to me that the abstraction model that many of us have in our minds looks something like this where both disciplines are areas of focus within a broader field, a higher level of abstraction called user experience design.
In my mind, this model has serious limitations. For one, I don’t believe that you can show an example of pure information architecture in the world devoid of instantiation any more than you can photograph a pure musician. Every time I see something made by an interaction designer, I see information architecture in it.
I have increasingly come to think that a more productive model for this relationship would be to think of interaction design as happening in a totally different level of abstraction from information architecture in much the same way that you can say that guitar playing is in a totally different level of abstraction from the composition you’re hearing. You wouldn’t be able to experience music without the people to play it.
You would only be able to appreciate it intellectually, and that is not the same thing. Note, also, that guitar playing is not the only way to get your composition heard. Of course, not everyone who plays guitar will be playing complicated pieces for which they need sheet music. Whether you’re playing Sibelius or the Sex Pistols, a little knowledge of composition goes a long way to making better music.
Note that this does not mean that one is more important than the other. It also doesn’t mean that there are two different sides of the same coin. It means that they are intertwined in a symbiotic, semantic relationship at different levels of abstraction. This influences the way that we communicate.
Understanding this could improve our ability to work together as we must because we cannot experience one without the other.
That’s what I have for you. Thank you for your attention.
Moderator: Do we have time for questions?
Audience Member: In your coda, you have certainly stirred the hornet’s worms, as it were, mixing metaphors for you. Can you talk a little bit more about that from a practical project standpoint where you see the ways that you can leverage the semantic environment to help break through the barriers, not for us nerds here, but for clients who get really confused about user ability and information user ability?
Jorge: That’s a good question. I actually would like to do exercises like that semantic mapping exercise with people in our community and with people in other communities and just try to understand what are these terms that are tripping us up. This comes from having watched the debate the other day.
There are these terms like design, which are keywords in these environments. They mean different things to different people. Whenever we have these discussions, the discussion inevitably devolves to, “What do you mean by the sign”? We’re talking about different things. The clearer we can be about those, the clearer our communications can be and the clearer we can understand each other.
Audience Member: Anybody else have a question? Do you know the song, “Burn On” by Randy Newman about burn on big river, burn on?
Audience Member: I tweeted the link to it. Burn on big…
Moderator: Thank you so much.