Designing Webs – Euro IA 2013

On Saturday, I presented a talk at Euro IA 2013 called ‘Designing Webs – Information Architecture as a Creative Practice‘. Rather than write the talk up in full, for now, I’ll just link you to the slides (with my speaker notes), Martin Belam’s write-up, and Boon Yew Chew’s sketch-notes (ooh, my first ever sketch-notes!).

This talk was a long time in coming. The ideas contained within have been bubbling around my head for most of the year, indeed, ever since I (re)discovered TARDIS Eruditorum and, at the same time, was pointed to John Higgs’ book about the KLF (thanks, Libby!). Reading both at the same time, the connections between Alan Moore’s concept of magic, the ideas of alchemy, and linked data/internet of things, were both fascinating and strangely familiar.

I wasn’t the first to make these kind of connections – Dan Catt has touched on similar things with his Artisanal Numbers project. Indeed, a lot of the content of the talk owes much to others – Michael Smethurst, Leila Johnston, Alyson FieldingTom Coates, Tom Armitage, James Burke, James Bridle, Russell Davies – all far cleverer and more accomplished than I. And yet, I wanted to draw all these threads together. I’ve had about three draft versions of blog posts just touching on the magic/alchemy thing sitting on WordPress for ages, and I could never quite get it to gel. The talk, being forty-five minutes (or just under, once I’d cut out the various comedy clips I was going to include, given the rather tenuous Edinburgh Fringe connection), doesn’t cover all the ideas I would have liked to, or in enough depth. I’ve probably been far too simplistic about the ideas of the people I’ve mentioned above, but there is frankly loads to say. Indeed, I’m hoping that an upcoming episode of Henry Cooke‘s Unevenly Distributed podcast will expand on a few of them (it was recorded a month or so prior to writing this talk).

I’d also like to explore the themes a lot more – getting my hands dirty with Arduinos, bringing to life the Internet of Fictional Things and so on. Also, I can certainly see how the talk might be perceived as a little too wooly, hand-wavy, naive. In response, I’d say that yes, the magic/alchemy thing is just a metaphor, albeit a really interesting and fun one for me, but there are practical points underpinning it. Not least that by thinking of your product, service or creative work as a web, rather than purely as a website, you get to the absolute essence of what it is – which helps you design for both now and the future. Martin makes the point that when redesigning the Guardian’s Culture section, he tried a similar approach – yes, it’s not necessarily easy or possible to complete the task straight away, but remember, you’re trying to build something that will last, something that will add to human culture and society in the long run – something which one day we may not even need a screen or visual interface to interact with – we might be able to appreciate each web for what it is.

So, yes, there it is. Thank you to all those who encouraged me to write the talk, refine it and so on – oh, and one note of caution – the domain model for sport (really just football) which is at the beginning (and you may have seen in a much more visually appealing state in some of Mike Atherton and even Louis Rosenfeld’s presentations) – that’s not actually the official BBC one, it’s one I created myself a while back, but has influenced the BBC’s Sport Ontology.

On a difference between TV and Radio online

In the pub last night, Jonathan made a very good point, I thought, about one of the differences between TV and radio production teams and their approach (and/or ability) when it comes to online – and why, historically, radio has tended to have a much closer relationship with Web teams.

The reason being, simply, that the proportion of live to pre-recorded shows on TV and radio is significantly different – almost opposite, most probably. Radio typically has a lot more live, or very-nearly-live, output, and thus the production teams are still around and engaged around the time of broadcast. Therefore, they are much more likely to be interested in committing resources to improving the available information about their programme online.

In contrast, TV production teams are, more often than not, completely disbanded, or at least concerned with a completely different piece of production, by the time transmission comes around. Thus, there is, if not less impetus and drive, certainly less possibility of being able to commit resource to supporting the actual broadcast.

Which is a shame, really. Because despite this difference in production practices, I don’t think that should be a barrier to becoming more engaged in creating experiences online. This isn’t an intrinsic, insurmountable barrier. It’s just that we need to adjust our mind-set and processes – both on the tech and production sides, and engage at the right time.

The difference doesn’t mean it’s impossible for TV to catch up with radio in this way, but it means we all need to be considering not only how we make new formats for TV shows, nor how we package up, distribute and explore existing content, but how we really integrate with production teams and work together to create a single experience.

The fact that a standard approach to getting tech involved with production processes tends to side more with broadcast technology, and/or smoothing the production process itself, is not a bad thing per se, but why not consider the eventual audience of the production at this stage, too? After all, the rest of the production team is already taking this into account – set design, lighting, scriptwriting – all of these balance the need to make production as easy as possible, with the ultimate goal of conveying something to the audience. It’s the latter which we take for granted as our mission when considering traditional ‘web applications’ and so on, but not when we think about getting involved with production teams themselves.

I’ve always been a proponent of getting tech teams much more involved in the production process – harnessing what we can from the exhaust (and, perhaps, the energy within) from production. Cast lists, locations, there is a wealth of data there which is not only useful from a production workflow and archiving point of view, but things that could provide real audience benefits, far beyond the easy to see but niche ‘location spotting’ uses. Yes, this has been the realm of massive IT projects in the past, but their fortunes shouldn’t dictate whether or not we at least attempt to do something in this area, on a more sustainable, smaller, dare I say more agile scale in the future.