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I did some more company based blogging:

Content structure for content strategy

One of the key messages in the IA world at the moment, in the wake of the rise of content strategy, is that planning content structure is just as important as planning, um, content.

Indeed, many would say they were inseparable, but while content strategy looks at what needs to be said, content structure looks at how it can be formatted, shared and re-used.

Continue reading.

Libraries gave us power

It’s Save our libraries day tomorrow. I’ll be going along to my local in Harringey for author readings and basement tours. I am far too excited about the latter. (You can see what’s on in your area here).

Here’s five things libraries have done for me, and countless like me:

They fired my imagination

Some of my earliest memories are about books. One could take out five children’s for three weeks. I would pick brightly-coloured hardbacks about the zoo, teddy bears, noodles etc etc and my parents would read them to me, as I looked for a giraffe in a crate. Awesome fun. I used to chatter about characters like they were real. I still write stories for some of my favourites to this day.

They developed my tastes

Now able to read for myself, I quickly learned that detective stories and anything set in a 1930s boarding school was bound to appeal, while the exploits of aliens and sportsmen did not. I would not have loved, hated, or learned half of what I did without libraries.

They gave me access resources I couldn’t get elsewhere

In the same way that radio and downloads let one sample music before investing in an album, libraries let me experiment with genres and styles without the commitment of handing over my hard-earned cash. £8 for a book is a lot for a 10 year old. A short walk down the road seems less of an expense.

Suddenly I could search for obscure Chalet School books and order them for just a few pennies. Not just books though, but local information. I heard about guitar lessons from my library, which kick-started my parallel musical education and continued into borrowing CDs and sheet music which I couldn’t afford to buy.

Latterly, as services have become more joined up, I’ve used my library card to access the Oxford English Dictionary, newspaper archives and local data, enabling me to verify that Stephen Fry is indeed credited with the invention of ‘Luvvie’, and view a scan of the paper it first featured in.

They gave me an alternative education

Soon I moved on from Blyton, Brent-Dyer and Pratchett and plunged head-first into teenage angst. Aged 15 my music and literature worlds collided when I got into the Manics. These pillars of knowledge, politics, anger and energy fuelled me and I wanted to read the books they did. My provincial library itself didn’t have much of Camus, Klein or Kafka, but I could reserve it. I studied politics at school too and without these texts I’m not sure when I would have grasped the difference between exams and education.

Also, while I was reserving these books, I was battling the library network’s computer system. A frustrating combination of disconnected databases and websites, I was also learning about the internet, data and search & retrieval techniques. I enjoyed the battle almost as enjoyed the books. Not knowing it at the time, I was taking the first steps down my career path.

They gave me a career

I studied an undergraduate degree in Information Management (IM) at the University of Sheffield. With this degree and my subsequent experience, I can apply for CILIP accreditation. (I haven’t, but mostly because I haven’t needed to yet. I will.) IM was an odd degree. I learned about classification, Dewy Decimal, Marc II and all the protocols and techniques traditionally associated with libraries and archives. I also learned about electronic search & retrieval (Google to anyone else), folksonomy, information psychology, HTML, accessibility and many other skills which led to my current post as an Information Architect.

I help others find information by understanding their needs and making it as easy for them as possible. Not a million miles away from librarians up and down the country. Don’t let them go to waste.

P.S. I wish I could say I chose to be a librarian purely because of my problem-solving abilities and love of books. They were huge factors, but I must admit that at 15 all I wanted to be was Nicky Wire’s wife. Unfortunately he already had one (still does), and she was a librarian.

Conform

Much as we try, humankind has yet to find an alternative way to gather semi-structured information from its fellows, so sticks to complicated, confusing, consequently soul-destroying forms. (And, I guess, helps keep me in a job.)

But employed or not, they’re a bugger, pure and simple.

It struck me one balmy afternoon that unlike many other interaction staples, (e.g. navigation, search, links) that there’s still not a definitive design pattern for forms. Not that those other three are always done correctly but there’s a common agreement about what good practise is. I think we’re still getting there with forms.

One obvious reason for this is that every form should be bespoke. It needs to be thought about as its own individual case. What was right previously might not be right this time. In fact, going in thought-blind is probably watch causes at lot of the problems.

But even though individual attention is needed there are a few overarching principles and patterns that I like to include. I believe they make the form easier to complete (which in turn decreases drop-off rate yadda yadda ).

Ulitmately we’re trying to assist the user and reduce the risk of errors. So:

Structure logically according to the task.

First things first, why do we need the form? If the information can be gathered any other way, don’t subject your users to it. They’ll only hate you for it.

Oh, and pre-populate fields where you can. Nothing’s more annoying than entering information unnecessarily.

Once you’ve established that form and all its content is absolutely necessary, structure it according to what it’s trying to achieve. If it’s long, break it into sections and include progress indicators. A task with an end in sight is more managable than one than a potentially infinite one.

I’m not going to witter on about the best way to do this – it really does depend on what the form’s for. But at the form field level, I think there’s a strong argument for consistent design patterns.

Tell the user what they have to do.

Each form field or field group should have a title.
Form title

Indicate whether the field is mandatory.
Mandatory fields

Add explanatory text.
Explanatory text

Offer further help e.g. rollover tool-tips or text blocks.
Tooltip off

Clicking the tool top shows the text block with help information.
Tooltip on

Hide fields the user does not need to complete.
Fields hidden

The secondary field isn’t shown until it’s been established the user needs to complete it.
Fields shown

Help the user to avoid mistakes and assist them when they do.

Using pre-submit error validation.

As the user types the system verifies their input, in this case 8 characters, alphanumeric characters and spaces only.

Success, or not, is highlighted and the user can make corrections before submission.

Using post-submit validation.
If fields cannot be verified on the fly, display the number of errors at the top of the page, and mark the individual fields that need correcting.

Clearly highlight errors and give clear instructions how to fix them.
Provide explanatory text against all error fields, whether using pre or post-submit validation.

That’ll do for starters. Play nicely now.

Information is a gorgeosity

One side effect of having a computer which takes 20 minutes to boot up is the free time I get to flick through Information is beautiful each morning. True to its word, its a beautiful book and before long I decide it’s time to try my own hand.

I’m an Information Architect. Without information I’m only an annoyance to RIBA. Can’t be that hard to construct a visually tantalising self-explanatory diagram, can it? Turns out it can.

First, I needed some data. Figures and/or relative relationships seemed to be the way forward, only I didn’t really have a strong set of either. What I did have was a long-standing amusement over the way characters in Stephen Fry novels interlock. Not just in a Bret Easton Ellis manner where we see the same people across different publications, but where different elements of semi-autobiography are split and twisted for different purposes forming a tapestry of half-truth, fact, madness and breakfast.

It’s not something that’s easily explained in words so it seemed the perfect subject for my info graphic.

But, as any idiot except me could see, that was the easy bit. So we’ve got our complexity, big deal. How to make it simple? Here’s some questions I tried to answer:

What are the important parameters and relationships?
Should some characters be given more weight than others?
How many dimensions (time, truth, relevance, head-hurtingness)?
Am I trying to make the complex clear, or show just how confusingly complex it is?

To begin with I went with something very rigid. I kept it monocrome as I wanted to get the structure and relationships records before I added that extra layer of distraction. Easy enough to read, I think, but it didn’t show the overlaps and confusion clearly enough. Also, using a fact->breakfast scale of confusion is (1) a very geeky Fry thing to do, and consequently (2) only makes sense to me. I happen to like it, even named a site after it, but it’s not exactly accessible.


Bigger.

So I switched to a more complex structure which had lots of detail, but turned out to be a nightmare to design. This was partly because I was over-complicating the different between ‘protagonist’ and ‘love interest’, placing too much emphasis on the source texts and trying to maintain a time/truth dimension to it when really that’s too subjective to record. Bad moves.


Bigger.

The last attempt takes a more subtle tone. It’s character-focused, which the previous iterations weren’t. This is important because the whole point of this infographic is the morphic overlapping characterisation. Good.


Bigger.

But they’re characters, so what? Lots of people are called Steve. So why is this interesting? Because it’s about love, friendship and learning. It’s human. I only care about the way these people link together because I am emotionally engaged with their emotional lives. Let’s show it.

Lastly, I needed a way to show where each character was featured, otherwise there’d be no indication that this was conflation of plots, not just one. This was tricky as I’d already overcomplicated things once and didn’t want to go down that road again. Colour-coding sure, but how? Each element needs to be readable at a glance, but it mustn’t over-power because it’s a secondary feature. A little dot either side of the emotional link. It just about does its job, I think.

From my list of considerations, one, Am I trying to make the complex clear, or show just how confusingly complex it is? still remains unanswered. The concept I’m trying to express doesn’t lend itself to divisions or clarity and I don’t think it’s stands up on its own. Unless you know Fry’s work it’ll be meaningless; prior knowledge is needed.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best choice of data. It could show just how confusingly complex it is, but actually I think that’s ideas above its station. It’s just confusing!

One thing’s for sure. When Fry publishes the next volume of his biography this September, I’m going to need to redraw. Things will be more complicated than ever.

It’s not what’s wrong, it’s what’s right.

So Vincent Flanders’, author of Web Pages That Suck (an educational tour around some complete car-crashes of websites), has said that from a design perspective, there’s little point in looking at good websites, as they are unlikely to inspire.

Now I love ripping sucky websites to shreds as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t dream of developing my designs purely on a what-not-to-do basis. Good websites are exactly the sort of sites I want to look at because they encourage me to raise my game in a creative, non-prescriptive way.

Whenever I get involved in a website redesign, I’ll look at websites that fall roughly into two categories:
1. Great site, simple as, for any number of reasons e.g. design, navigation, cross-channel integration
2. Sites that might be viewed as ‘competitors’ to my site because they operate in the same business arena, have similar content, or are actually companies in direct competition.

I’ll look at these sites to understand what’s being done well, across the internet as whole, as well as more contextually. Apple might have a beautiful site, but doesn’t sit next to a government quango in terms of business space. So to balance out, I’ll also see if any other government quangos have a really inspired way of using social media, for instance. (This is an area where government can often go wrong, by trying to appear too ‘with it’, which Apple gives the appearance of doing effortlessly). Some principles of good web design are global, some are contextual.

Looking at these sites does not put me off or dishearten me, but drives me to be as good as them. My thoughts are about what can I learn and how I can apply it, positive aspirations. If I were to look at only bad websites, I would quickly feel angry, depressed, and unchallenged. If I’m unchallenged I won’t put in proper effort, I won’t be striving for anything, because I know I can do better than the sites featured on Vince’s site.

That’s not to say that rules aren’t needed. I think part of the reason I disagree with Vince over the value of looking at bad sites is because I’m already well aware of the fatal mistakes websites can make and what should be done to avoid making them in the first place. It’s my job to know. So maybe I’m not the audience he’s trying to reach with this.

But I would say to anyone who’s interested in web design at all that learning from others’ successes is just as important as learning from others’ failures. After all, no one learned to write by reading Dan Brown.*

*yeah, it’s a needless pay off, but I really don’t want to read anything he writes, ever again. It hurts.