Part 3 of a 4-part series with the keynote speakers of the Big Design conference in Dallas, TX. I’m joined by professor, speaker, writer, and information architect Jorge Arango. We discuss the early days of IA and the web, how the IA of digital infrastructures does and doesn’t support civic discourse, and the unintended consequences of social media on our politics and culture. What can we learn about information architecture from physical architecture?

What can we learn from physical architecture in relation to IA? Photo by Dan GoldUnsplash

Autumn Hood: Tell me a little bit about what you do.

Jorge Arango: I am an independent information architect in the Bay Area. I work with organizations that have large information environments–things like websites, apps, digital systems. I help them make it possible for people to find stuff easily and make sense of it once they do find it.

AH: That’s definitely an important part of the experience.

JA: That’s right. I basically look after two things: One, the distinction between different parts of the environment, understanding what makes one thing different from another. The second is asking how we should label those things so it’s obvious to people what those distinctions are. So setting things apart, and then labeling them so that those distinctions make sense to people. Often, this manifests in things like navigation, labeling of sections and pages, stuff like that.

AH: Have you always done information architecture, or did you do something else earlier in your career?

JA: My background is in architecture, as in the design of buildings.

AH: Wow!

JA: I did that for about a year before doing web stuff. I studied architecture and graduated in the early ’90s as the web was first coming on the scene. I left my career very early because I saw where things were going and decided to jump on that. I started a studio designing websites, over time focusing more and more on information architecture.

AH: When you initially made that switch, how did you go about learning information architecture? I can’t imagine those kinds of resources were as readily available as they are today.

JA: Well when I first got into it, I didn’t know about information architecture specifically. What drew me in was “the web.” It was a new thing, it was clearly going to be big. I learned about the web and HTML through books. One of the beautiful things about the web is you can always view the source of a page that you’re on. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that a book came out that I am holding in my hand right now, called Information Architects (I’m holding it because I’m looking for the date). Copyright 1996. So this book by Richard Wurman was the first time I saw the phrase “information architect,” and on its very cover it features Wurman’s definition of an information architect.

I was immediately drawn to it and thought, given my background in architecture, “This is the exact description of what I do! There are other people who do this and call themselves this.” That was when I first got exposed to that label.

I immediately had new business cards printed that said I was an information architect, even though at that time I don’t think I was quite sure what that meant.

But the idea of making stuff easier to find and understand was was where my competencies lay and what I wanted to focus on. I’ve devoted the rest of my career to it.

AH: What have you found that’s actually surprisingly similar between the two?

JA: There’s a bunch of things. I don’t think I could have studied anything else that would have better prepared me for what I do. For one thing, architecture is a design practice. And there are many parallels between the process through which you arrive at the design of a building and the process of designing an information environment.

Beyond that, it’s a synthetic field that brings together engineering, human factors, and systems. For a building to work, there are multiple things that need to come together. It’s not just a structure resisting the force of gravity. You have to worry about the electrical system, heating and air conditioning, plumbing, and how people move around in the space. These things have to come together they have to mesh perfectly. When you do a good job, people don’t even notice it.

AH: Exactly. Jared Spool has that quote about that good design being invisible. If your job is done well, it goes unnoticed.

JA: And whenever you design something, you’re designing in relation to what has come before it. There’s an artistic aspect to it. For example, a cathedral doesn’t need to have any particular shape to serve its function, but there’s a layer beyond mere utility that goes into it.

AH: I’m really keen on your metaphor that good system architectures support people the way a building might. As designers, of course our main job is to make sure that people can complete tasks and find information. But for a lot of us, we’re not satisfied simply making things functional. We’re compelled to bring beauty. And it’s also that association you mentioned. When you think of a cathedral, you think of associations that adds to your trust of the thing. I don’t know if I would have as much trust in something to be a “good cathedral” if it didn’t necessarily look like one. There’s this ethos underlying my mental models that affect what I think these things should look like to represent their function.

JA: Absolutely. I recently published a book, which is what my presentation at Big D is about. It makes the case that in websites and apps, we’re creating contexts that influence how people think, therefore how they act. Our society is in the process of moving key social interactions to non-physical spaces. You and I are meeting, but we’re not meeting in physical space. We’re meeting over the phone in an electronically-mediated space. The fact that I can only hear your voice and can’t see you subtly affects the conversation. We’re doing this all the time now with new technologies, but we’ve been doing it somewhat unwittingly.

If you look at the framework we’ve been using in the field, we talk about designing products and services, and these things are all transactional and ephemeral. We don’t focus much on the context we’re creating.

What I contend is that we are running into trouble because we are not thinking about how these areas support our activities as places. I read an interview with Mark Zuckerberg where he said that holocaust deniers deserve to have a voice on Facebook platform. I’m not trying to take a position on that particular thing because I don’t know enough about it. But the fact that he’s having to worry about that, about what type of conversations happen on Facebook, is undeniable. It’s affecting our culture and our politics. These are issues we’re having to contend with.

AH: We have to ask ourselves, “What are all the unintended consequences of what we do?” It goes beyond design. That’s the problem. These consequences are perhaps 3, 4, 5 steps removed from the mere “design” of the tool, but they’re a link in the chain reaction. Especially regarding digital interfaces, it’s so hard to anticipate those reactions. Facebook’s been around for a while, but really only in the past 3 or so years maybe, have these ethical questions become more obvious on a national scale.

I guess what I’m saying is that it took years to even begin to understand the implications of Facebook on our culture and politics, and what happens when everyone has an open platform. When Zuckerberg built Facebook in his dorm room, he didn’t know to think about these effects on our society. He didn’t anticipate that Facebook and similar platforms could sway not just national discussions, but actual outcomes. We need to understand the ramifications on society if holocaust deniers have an open platform as equally as someone who is just sharing some benign event from their day. Which, I think most people would agree are not the same. It’s falsely equivalating those two.

I empathize with the problems Facebook is dealing with. They correlates exactly with the issues I face in my job. I work with really smart business analysts and developers. Everyone does their best to anticipate all the problems we might run into, to try to identify technical dependencies or constraints before they’re an issue. But there are some issues that no one will anticipate and it’s only until it’s a problem and you’re poking around in the guts of a thing that you can even recognize problems for what they are.

It’s the same thing with smartphones, or any of these devices we have on the go. Now we’re seeing signs, especially in Millennials and Generation Zs who have had these devices from an early age, of how it affects their posture, and the bones in their hands and the bones in their necks because they’ve been using these tools since before their skeletons were fully developed. And it’s not that the ergonomics of smartphones necessarily have to do with information architecture, but in the same vein we didn’t identify all the possible consequences of this particular thing.

JA: It’s affecting all those things, and it’s affecting relationships between parents and kids, and how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to focus on what is around you. One thing you said, Facbeook has been around for a while, since 2006 or 2007? That is a long time if you compare it to digital stuff, but if you compare it to the “marketplace,” like a physical marketplace where people go to trade, that has been around for centuries. There are things we can learn from the design of physical places for more effective information environments.

Whenever you transact with someone in a physical place, you and that other person understand even subconsciously where you’re standing within relation to the organization that built that place and what the price for being there is. Let’s say you’re having a conversation at Starbucks. You understand that the price for being there is that you buy a coffee or what have you. You understand that that’s how Starbucks makes money, and they provide this environment for you to hang out in exchange for revenue.

The thing that’s tripping us up that underlies free speech and “neutral” platforms is we have created information environments where we’re having important social conversations, but the business model isn’t selling a cup of coffee, it’s selling our attention. I contend that for certain types of conversations, that model is not sustainable. I don’t think a platform can host real, transparent civic discourse if the way it makes money in that environment is by selling the attention of the participants in that discourse. That just contradictory. Because inherently, that platform is trying to persuade and influence people, and that’s the opposite of having a transparent conversation. That’s why I keep driving back to architecture: this is not new. Making places is not new. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Yet things like Facebook are new. We should look to the sorts of places where we’ve done that in the past and see what works.

AH: If you think about it, when you’re in Starbucks, there are so many environmental clues that you perceive so instantaneously because biologically we’re geared to take in surroundings. Even the context of that particular Starbucks. Is it in suburban shopping mall, or is it somewhere dangerous? These things influence how we perceive that place. Starbucks truly is “neutral” in that the coffee the sell does not influence what we say or how we think.

In a digital space, the playing fields are more level. It camouflages the identity of the person you’re talking to or the entity that is paying for your time in that space. We have not evolved to read, synthesize, and categorize digital content like this. This is new for our species still. But we have millions of years of deciphering physical contexts. It’s a new space that’s come about very quickly that we haven’t fully adapted to, so we’re not fully capable of defending ourselves quite yet.

JA: And the difference is, we lack the ability to read that context accurately because differences among parts of the environment are often very, very subtle. I have a friend, Andrew Hinton, who’s written a book on context. He uses an example from the early days of Twitter. In Twitter, you can tweet publicly or tweet directly to someone. It used to be if you were writing a direct tweet to someone, you would proceed it with “DM” for “direct message.” Andrew talks about what a huge difference in context those two little characters make because it’s the difference between whispering in someone’s ear and whispering into the announcement system of a stadium. There’s even a phrase for it called “Direct message fails,”

A misunderstanding of the context you’re interacting in can have disastrous consequences. It’s something we’re not used to yet. It’s the responsibility of the designers to make it clear the context you’re interacting in. We haven’t been serious enough about these things partly because we’ve been thinking about them in framings that are not about context, they’re about products and services.

AH: Sometimes, design failures are funny anecdotes at the worst, like, “look at this awful dialog,” or “look at the way this system glitched out on me.” And in those cases, there’s not too much harm done. However, a more malicious example is the Hawaiian missile scare that happened in January 2018. It’s very easy to say, “Well, someone just pushed the wrong button and messed up at their job.” When you look at the UI they were using, you see why they made that mistake. It’s pretty easy to understand and most people would probably make the same mistake if they did that job long enough. It’s another example similar to the Twitter DM example. Maybe these options should not be so closely associated, physically or conceptually. Maybe these things shouldn’t be anywhere near each other.

JA: I mentioned earlier that my area of focus is establishing distinctions and then labeling them so that they are clear. So in this case when the Hawaiian missile scare, I remember seeing the interface people had to use. There are 2 modes people could have been acting in, one was a test mode and one was the real thing. In that screenshot, it was not clear which mode someone is acting in. The differences between those modes was not obvious. And you can see how someone would easily act in the production environment thinking they were acting within a testing environment. That was catastrophic.

It’s not just about making something usable, it’s also about helping people create a mental model of what they’re doing and how the place supports their tasks. And you do that through labeling and setting things apart. We need to pay more attention to it, and we’re going to be forced to because we have holocaust deniers and other people who are not good for society threatening to take society off the rails. As these words are coming out of my mouth, I feel like I need to slap myself. It’s crazy!

AH: It’s hard to believe. If you’re at Starbucks, you can discern whether or not you can trust someone because of all these micro expressions and minor gestures you don’t even realize you’re seeing. But online, everything is equalized, sanitized to the point where it all looks the same, and you don’t have those things cluing you in when something is dangerous. You have the message of course, but the message is presented in the same way simpler, benign messages are presented.

What are the ethical responsibilities of people who design at Facebook, or Twitter, or anywhere where you’re content is provided freely by anyone. There’s a lot of masking as to who is really behind an ad, or a picture, or a game. And where a corporation’s money goes. Or what bigger conglomerate owns them.

Not every or product designer has the same ethical considerations that Facebook and Twitter. But there is still the responsibility of understanding that we’re designing for humans, and that humans make mistakes. If you’re sick, have a new baby at home, have health issues that distract you, it might not seem so implausible to click the wrong link in the case of the Hawaiian missile scare. Anyone could make that mistake. We have to anticipate that people won’t always have perfect performance.

JA: It comes back to the business model and what incentives are forming the environment. In the case of an online retailer, their business model is pretty clear. When I interact with the system, the company makes revenue based off of some kind of transaction. It’s in their best interest that I complete my task successfully. But if your company is incentivized to keep people in their system as long as possible, you would design very differently.

YouTube’s algorithm — you know how it automatically plays another video when the one you’re watching ends? Well, if you sign out of your account, and you just let it run, the algorithm will go and is designed to show you things it thinks will keep you there. If you end up on even a mildly-controversial video, it will keep showing you ever-more polarizing stuff because the more agitated you become, the more sure it is that you will want to keep going further down that particular hole. And that is a recipe for polarization. If you keep pushing people ever-farther to the fringes, that will affect their worldviews profoundle.

AH: If you look at where we are as a country, so much of that divisiveness is because you can find extremes on either end, and there’s no prerequisite for what you can post. You can just post anything and then it can be found by anyone. Whether or not that content is true doesn’t matter; it influences people regardless. But it looks professional in a way because it’s in draped in this YouTube window dressing, almost as if it’s sponsored to some degree by YouTube, a company with which you are familiar.

JA: It gives it credibility. “I saw it on YouTube.” Facebook makes everything look like Facebook. But it’s not neutral. Some things are less true than others. Some things are dangerous. But it’s designed intentionally to look like a neutral platform. It’s pernicious. It makes things that are crazy and stupid look as the same as things that are smart and wise.

AH: So how can information architecture solve some of these problems?

JA: For one thing, we need to start thinking about these things in the longer term. We have to start thinking about not designing for the next quarter, but what are going to be the outcomes of this for the next 10 years?

When you’re designing a building, you’re not just thinking about the next quarter. You’re thinking this is an investment that’s going to last. We need to start expanding our view and looking more longterm at the consequences of the things we’re doing. We need to look to architecture. How have we done this in the past? On one hand this stuff is new, but there are elements that have been around for a long time. We’ve been in contexts for a long time.

The other thing is business models–advertising has not serviced us well as a business model for online operating. I do think there are some very good uses for advertising. But having our civic discussions in environments that are funded by advertising is contradictory. We need to move beyond it somehow. It going to be challenging because if the platform is not supported by advertising, that implies you have to pay for it, which implies that fewer people can participate. But I think the idea that you’re going to be persuading me and selling my attention is an non-starter.

AH: I agree. I never would have thought about these issues from the perspective of digital architecture. Was there anything else you wanted to get in before we wrap up? I don’t want to spoil your talk too much!

JA: Don’t worry, there’s more. I don’t want this to sound like it’s all grim and negative. No one wants to hear that. Digital media and the things we’re working on are tremendous. It’s the biggest thing since the printing press. There’s so much potential. We need to start behaving more responsibly. The subtitle of my book has the word “responsible” in it. You have the ability to respond, you have agency as a designer, and that’s the whole point.

AH: For those of us who attend Big Design, one of the reasons we go is we want to do a better job and we want to do the right thing. I’m excited to hear more of what you’re talking about.

JA: Yeah, Big Design is a good little tribe. Tribes form around conferences, and this one is no different.

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