Category Archives: Ideas

From Void, to Matter, to Meaning

Earlier today, Dan Klyn retweeted a piece by Cennydd Bowles entitled ‘Void and matter’. It’s an interesting spin on the age old question of ‘what is information architecture?’, and more specifically, how the practice differs from other types of User Experience Design, such as Interaction Design.

Back in 2008, I had no idea what information architecture was. I started to attend the BBC’s IA team meetings, thanks to the generous invite of Karen Loasby, despite me not being a member of that team just yet, and there was plenty of talk of ‘defining the damn thing’.

More recently, Abby Covert, amongst several others, has done stirling work to reinvigorate the practice and consideration of IA. I’m loathe to open up the definition can of worms, but I started thinking about it in response to Cennydd’s piece, and I came up with this:

Information Architecture is the design of structures and/or systems that communicate meaning.

By which I mean — almost everything in the world conveys meaning of some sort, whether it is intended to, or not. Hence apophenia (23). But when you do design things in order to communicate some kind of meaning or idea, you are designing an information architecture. This, of course, sounds similar to ‘information design’, I suppose — though I’d argue the latter is perhaps less focused on structures and systems.

If you ever find yourself looking at a piece of web design (let’s narrow it down to that for now), and you wonder — but what does it actually mean, what is it trying to communicate? Then you’re thinking with an information architecture hat on. And, more importantly, to not consider the meaning, or indeed the perception, or what exactly someone is meant to take away from your design, is a huge failing. Which is why I can’t understand UX processes that don’t seriously make time for IA — and probably why IAs who do care so passionately about the meaning of things do get so easily drawn into ‘defining the damn thing’.

Anyway — to Cennydd’s piece directly. What I very much like is the distinction between designing “things that are smaller” than the designer, and “things that are larger”. It reminds me of the old adage that you should always design your product, system, platform or service to be able to fit into a larger system. Don’t just think of your work as the be all and end all — allow it to enable things you’ve not even thought of.

Cennydd also makes an interesting metaphor in “designing the void” versus “designing the matter”. But here’s where I’d like to stress something — designing the matter is absolutely information architecture as well. This isn’t a criticism of the piece — there are no definitive ‘correct’ answers here — I’d just like to offer my spin on something I feel really needs to be highlighted, else IAs (and other UX folk) feel they’re off the hook.

The examples that Cennydd gives — “the tools people manipulate. Materials with properties and responses”. Now, more than ever, information architects need to get involved here. Because the matter we’re creating on the Web is made almost entirely of information structures.

Think about APIs, think about URIs for Things, think about domain driven design with its classes and properties — those are the tools we make available to manipulate, these are the things that we grapple with on the Web.

Information Architects need to be involved in designing the matter on the Web. Interaction Designers need to understand APIs, URIs for resources, linked data (yes, I know), REST and so on. Because that is the raw material we’re dealing with here — networked, interactive information. Designing the matter is the real Web design. And whatever your UX leaning, understanding that is key to harnessing the wonderful medium we have at our disposal.

This post is also available on Medium.

The beauty of difference of opinion

Excellent! There is a social object (often a cultural work – a piece of art, an episode of a TV show, a song) that we have a shared experience/knowledge of.

Oh. Your opinion/reaction/interpretation to/of that thing is different from mine. It could be negative, whereas mine is positive, or maybe we agree overall, but have picked out different aspects of the thing to react to.

That’s OK though. Right now, our reactions are not the same. Rather than shoot you down and dismiss your opinions as wrong and invalid, I would like to learn more about your opinions. Tell me more. Point to specific things within the Thing, and educate me on the reasons behind your views.

I may end up agreeing with your views, and sharing them. I may not. But what’s most important is that I understand, as much as possible, what that opinion is, and the reasons behind it. Because I want to learn. Because, if and when I create my *own* social objects or cultural works, I want to understand and anticipate the ways in which people might react.

And, I want to make things better. I want to make better things.

I want some way in which, once I’ve seen that there’s someone I can talk to about a shared cultural social object, we can discuss it – each of us without fear that the other is trying to knock us down, or might interpret our actions as belittling them.

Some way in which I can say “hey, you watched that thing too? I don’t understand your opinion, but I want to. Show me, teach me. Help me understand.”

Total agreement and consensus is very, very difficult, if not impossible, on these things. But that is OK. That is fine. That is the beauty of these things. Not every opinion is correct (if, indeed, there is a ‘correct’ definition at all), but understanding the reasons behind the opinions, that is the crucial thing.

Understanding, learning. Creating a giant patchwork of multiple, differing opinions, some shared, some not, all with common reference points. The biggest network of cultural understanding possible.

All this ‘one-URL-per-Thing’, all that work that I do – that’s not the end game. What I’ve written here, is. The goal is to give us the hooks, the handles, the things to point at, all so that we can use them to discuss, share, learn and understand. We come together over shared social objects. We share opinions. We discuss, we understand, we learn, we grow, we enjoy the beauty of difference, the fact that it doesn’t all make sense.

We revel in the absurd idea of stringing it all into one coherent line. The fun is in the nonsense.

My Mission for 2014: Writing is Structure

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I’m interested in writing, and specifically the writing of narratives. I’ve always harboured a desire, if not the will or confidence, to write stories – scripts, sketches, that kind of thing. And, in the realm of technology, I’ve long been interested in structure. It’s often said that structure can be bad – too restrictive, too cookie-cutter. That’s not the kind of structure I’m interested in.

Things like Mythology Engine, Storybox and the Stories Ontology were attempts to convey the kind of thing I am interested in – but they, too, can be interpreted as trying to dissect narratives, and thus ultimately destroy them. In contrast, I guess what I’ve been trying to investigate is the structure which informs the creation of narratives, as well as the analysis, with the latter being only so that the narratives can be discussed, shared, and in turn, inspire new narratives. So my interest is more in conveying meaning, where possible – telling stories to the machines, as I’ve noted elsewhere. But also in using structure as a guide, as an inspiration.

Many times when I’ve tried to start writing a story, I’ve struggled. At first, the fear grips you that it’s down to two things – you can’t write, and you don’t have any good ideas. The first fear can, after a while, be dismissed, especially with the adage that is prevalent in technology as well as writing – just make/write something, a terrible first draft, just so you’ve got somewhere to start from.

The second fear, of no ideas, is a harder one to shake. Primarily because, in a lot of the writing I’ve read on writing, it concentrates literally on the process of writing, of scrawling on paper or typing on a computer. Giving yourself time to write, setting a target of a certain number of words a day, even in terms of writing prompts, little sentences designed to spark your mind.

But I’ve never really found this helpful either. What is helpful, I’ve found, is structure. Again, not as a ‘this is how you must write your story’, but as inspiration – ‘try this way of structuring your story, and see where that takes you’. Robert McKee’s book, Story, is a step in the right direction, but it felt a little too focused solely on screenwriting, and was a tad too opinionated and didactic for me. I got about a third of the way through the book, and, feeling it wasn’t for me, gave up, falling back again on the thought that you just had to sit in front of a blank screen, perhaps with a writing prompt, and see what happens.

Then, two things happened – David Varela’s tweet – ‘Writing is structure’, provided a spark of light, for me. For so long, I’d been under the impression that structure was always viewed with suspicion by writers, for the ‘cookie-cutter’ reasons above. But this gave me confidence.

And then, I read FilmCritHulk’s Screenwriting 101. I found it incredibly inspirational, broad-minded and enlightening. It doesn’t really talk about the process of writing as I’ve mentioned above (the ‘just sit down and write’), nor the slightly worn phrase ‘writing is rewriting’ (the latter, which may indeed be true, doesn’t help, in terms of a narrative, if you’re trying to work out how to start).

What it does, is help you focus on the inspiration for narrative and character, and suggests several structural approaches for both analysing and creating. Things like the five-act structure, character trees, snowflakes, ‘therefore and but’, and so on. Seriously, read the book. Again, it doesn’t insist that you write every story in these ways, but it gives you frameworks, approaches – things you can try, which will help you structure a narrative, before you get to the stage of literally writing the dialogue and so on.

That, that is what I’m interested in. And I want to know more. Firstly, because ever since reading the book, whenever I watch a film or TV show, I’m consciously looking out for five-act structures and so on. But secondly, because I want to build something. You see, as far as I’m aware, all the tools out there for writers are either ones that are very general purpose ‘idea collection’ tools (mind-maps, post-it notes etc), or purposely script-writing ones (things like Final Draft, or Adobe Story). But I’m not sure there’s anything in between. Something which takes the structures and frameworks and leads you through them, or helps you create narratives using them, or even just helps you analyse existing narratives through that lens. So that’s what I want to build.

To that end, this year, I want to learn and understand as much as possible about the structure, craft and process of writing narratives. I’m not as interested, as I say, in things like ‘how do you find time to write’ or ‘do you just sit down at your computer, type, look over it, and type again’. I want to find out more about the different ways you can structure a narrative – what are they, how often are they used, where are they helpful, how might they be combined.

I want to speak to as many writers as possible about this. If you’re interested, get in touch (I already have a short list of folk I’d like to talk to, so expect emails, but get in touch anyway!). If you don’t really use structure, that’s absolutely fine – I’m not trying to force everyone to use it – I just want to provide something for those who do use it, or are interested in it. Similarly, if there are tools which already do this – I’m interested in terms of research, but I’m still going to build something, if only for my own learning – please don’t bring me down 😉

I’m thinking this could result in a series of blog posts, or perhaps even a podcast series, of interviews with writers – and then ultimately a tool, based on all that knowledge.

Let’s see where this takes me.

P. S. Things that also helped inspire me to write this – John Yorke’s Into the Woods, Matt Locke’s Don’t get bigger, get weirder, and Kim Plowright’s Guiding Principles.

P. P. S. Oh, and I guess I should write a blog post about the slightly-different new job at some point, too..

P. P. P. S. Also worth clarifying – I’m not looking to build something whereby machines auto-generate stories. Whilst that may be an avenue worth exploring, I’m not interested in taking authorship out of the hands of humans. This is about giving more tools to humans to create stories, and, perhaps, to widen the audience of those stories to include machines as well.

Pick of the Week

On Friday, I attended the Radio 4 ‘Digital Challenge Day‘. The brief was simple, but tightly focused – commissioners weren’t looking for new shows, applications or websites, but instead, ways in which editorial staff could use existing digital media in new ways, to attract new audiences.

The team I was assisting came up with a rather neat idea of focusing on unexpected audiences – people you wouldn’t naturally associate with the traditional Radio 4 listener, enjoying and recommending their favourite programmes. This would, hopefully, help introduce the diverse range of programmes broadcast on Radio 4, to those who would baulk at joining what is sometimes perceived to be an imposing, entrenched community of listeners.

One idea that sprang to my mind during the day was that of Pick of the Week. If you’ve never listened, it is broadcast on Sunday evenings, and is hosted by a public figure, playing back clips from selected highlights from the past week’s programmes, interspersed with brief reviews and comments. It’s quite a nice way to sample the output.

To me, it seems that there’s a natural equivalent on the Web for this – Storify. Now, I understand that editorial staff already use Storify and close relations, mainly to curate chatter around live events, but it feels like there could be something in this.

Storify allows you to point at anything with a URL, put these objects in a narrative order, and provide some contextual commentary in the gaps before and after the objects. Whereas I’ve seen it used a lot to aggregate videos, images and tweets, what if the objects were the programmes themselves?

Pick of the Week is essentially the same format – so much so, that I quickly put together a very rough prototype sample of what it could look like. If I get the chance, I might put together one that more accurately represents a typical episode of the show…

It would be great if, alongside the broadcast being made available online, there could be a Web equivalent representation of the episode – i.e. a Storify that collects and curates the same highlighted programmes, with a similar commentary around them – these could then be kept available once the rights to the actual audio have expired.

Interestingly, this could then be opened up – whereas currently, only the nominated public figure gets to compile their Pick of the Week, with a few suggestions sent in by members of the public, Storify is a tool that anyone can use, and we already have URLs for every programme on Radio 4. So, why not actively encourage people to create and share their own Pick of the Week?

This feels like a simple and effective way to get people sharing and talking about the programmes they enjoy, and achieves the same aim of getting away from the focus on the traditional image of the Radio 4 listener – whereas the main thrust of our team’s idea was to focus on unexpected listeners, in opposition to the cliche, this democratisation of Pick of the Week puts the focus squarely on the content – letting it shine, rather than getting stuck behind the perceived audience barrier. Potentially, it would also focus people’s minds on improving and stretching the quality and diversity of programmes on Radio 4, thereby breaking those stereotypes even more.

I’m sure that something similar to this has either already been done (I’m looking at you, @bowbrick and @jemstone), or is probably in the pipeline already, but it does feel that there’s at least some untapped potential in the idea, to push it a bit harder, and see the benefits.

Proposal for a RICH List

tl;dr – A proposal for a Reasonably Interested Community of Hackers as a loose network of people to work on half-baked ideas – no commitment necessary, just share and help.

Probably my best experience of ‘organised’ innovation in my career so far has been the ‘10% time’ organised by Tristan Ferne (and others) at BBC Audio & Music in 2008-2010. The premise was simple – 10% of your time each week, i.e. every Friday afternoon, you could spend on your own project, providing you shared the results with others, and it was in some way relevant to the BBC. Every so often (monthly, I think, but possibly fortnightly), a meeting would be called, where people would share work in progress, and those with new ideas could pitch them and ask for help. This was an excellent way of fostering a community spirit amongst disciplines – no-one claimed to be an expert, there were no cast-iron commitments to finishing a piece of work, it was simply this – if you want to help build something, to build upon an idea, take it and run with it, to contribute to helping someone else’s idea come to fruition, or to learn and share knowledge, this was the space to do it. It was excellent.

But, for whatever reason, 10% time is no more. There are, of course, more organised or formal ways of ‘doing’ innovation – hack days, R&D groups, the BBC’s Connected Studio. Not all ideas fit nicely into work remits or structures though. Sometimes you don’t really want or have a brief, or a challenge, or a short time frame and a competitive environment. Sometimes you just want a friendly space where you can share half-baked ideas – people are free to build upon them, help you realise them, or ignore them entirely. And, as is probably obvious to anyone who’s been reading this blog or has spoken to me recently, there’s things I’d like to try, things I’d like to learn, that just don’t tend to fit in those existing boxes. Sure, I could take these on as completely personal projects, learn and build them on my own – but that can be a difficult and frustrating experience. I don’t want to avoid this entirely, but when I know there’s people out there who could help, it feels silly to ignore all that, struggle and most probably give up in the end. Similarly, you could just blog and share it with Twitter and the rest of the Web – this is fine, but sometimes you need more of a bounded box of interested parties, so things don’t get lost in the noise.

Today I met up with Mark Simpkins (somehow, for the first time), after planning to meet with Chris Thorpe (another time!). We talked about an idea that Mark had been discussing around an alternative conference format – something in between a formal, present your slides, conference, and a completely free-for all unconference. What was needed, he said, was somewhere you could take a half baked idea, maybe show a very small amount of slides, but mainly discuss it with a group. The notion of a ‘salon’ was brought up.

To me, though, this brought to mind the atmosphere of a comedy improv, or sketch group – one where anyone could contribute an idea, and it would be quickly worked up into something (prototyped, if you will..). Half-baked ideas were celebrated. Ideas should be met with a ‘yes, and’ rather than a ‘no, but’. This doesn’t always work – sometimes when you have an idea, you want to follow that exact idea through – but this should be possible – you can follow through an idea, see what happens, but you could also let others be inspired by your idea and go off in a completely different direction. It’s all good.

So – I know there’s plenty of talented people out there. People who’ve got interesting ideas, and the ability and/or skills to help bring them to life. You don’t have to commit any time to this – just listen in, and if there’s something that takes your fancy, you can volunteer to help, in any way you see fit. Bring your ideas, too. Any and all skills are welcomed, even if you’re not a coder or designer etc. I’d expect we’ll need a mailing list, a wiki-space, and perhaps somewhere to meet up (pub?) once a month to share things.

As I say, no commitments necessary – but if you’re willing, able and interested, why don’t you join –

a Reasonably Interested Community of Hackers?

(is or similar available??)