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Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture

Thursday, March 17, 2016

How does context relate to content? On this week's Writer Podcast, Byron chats with Andrew Hinton, author of Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. The interview covers several topics, including the concept of context with mobile experience, and how context fits into the customer journey. Andrew is a Senior Digital Experience Architect at State Farm, and a founding member of the Information Architecture Institute . You can learn more about him at http://andrewhinton.com/.

Byron:                                   Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with Andrew. Andrew, welcome.


Andrew:                              Hi. Nice to be here.


Byron:                                   Understanding Context, now that should take several hours.


Andrew:                              It took me several years. It was a long, hard road to get that book written. But yes, there’s a lot going on there.


Byron:                                   Indeed. Tell us where this concept of context hit you. It’s pretty clear what…Well, go ahead. How does context fit with the environments of marketing and communications as we know it?


Andrew:                              Well, very briefly what got me onto that topic was trying to figure out what we do when we do information architecture. So when we’re categorizing things, connecting things, creating structures out of information, what’s the material we’re working with? Because in other kinds of design, you can say, “I’m working with that sort of material.” What is it that you’re architecting? So that was kind of the central question that’s sort of an ongoing discussion in the IA community, and I just kept working on that and landed on context as kind of the central problem domain. So information architecture feeds into content. In a nutshell, the way I put it at least, is it’s like you’re building the city block or the building or whatever that all this activity moves through. So the architecture is kind of creating the conditions, the structures within which people can create and share and communicate the content. So their categorization schemes, the structures people are accessing content in, the structures that they’re creating in them, even the rules behind all that, they’re all architectural concerns. Now that we’re trying to create content that can be used in many different places, in many different contexts, we need to understand how context works in terms of the way people understand their environment, understand the content that they’re getting in terms of where it is when they get it, what’s related to it and all those things.


Byron:                                   We tend to design in a vacuum, most of us, how something is going to look or how it’s going to feel. What about the contrast with how people actually use what we design? Where does context fit with the use of the things we design?


Andrew:                              Well, in the book I go pretty deep into what’s called embodied cognition. Embodied cognition theory is an emerging, rich way of understanding how any sentient creature or sentient, conscious, perceiving creature understands and uses their environment and acts in it. Building from that, then figuring out how do people interact with their environment, and then you have language and digital systems to that where we’re pumping all this language out and the various ways. That’s getting at that challenge of how are people interacting with what we make, like how do people understand whether something is a button or not when it’s really just a sheet of glass that they’re tapping their finger on. We can make pretend buttons all over the place, but some things look like I can tap them and I really can. Sometimes, content shows up in a place where it makes sense. The same content can show up somewhere else where because of what’s around it it ends up meaning the opposite or offending somebody or just not making any sense at all. When people are trying to navigate some kind of digital place, all we have to work with is language to structure that place. So, how are we using language to make that? Those are all central concerns in terms of how people are interacting with and understanding their environment. Things we make are things that we’re putting in their environment, so really I’m framing all this as we are all creating parts of people’s environments, what’s  the fundamental principles behind how they interact with that.


Byron:                                   How has our mobile dependency changed user experience? And are we really starting to strip everything down so it can be quickly conceived of and acted up in a mobile device?


Andrew:                              Yeah, I mean I think what mobile did was it broke the way we were starting to think of digital stuff, because digital stuff was largely about desktop, laptop computers. It was about big computing devices and we could assume a lot of that location and the context people were in. Now what people are doing is…and this is part of what I frame in the book, is that it’s really not about mobile versus not mobile; it’s really about expanding our perspective to include the whole environment, because people are going to recruit from the environment whatever they need in a moment. And whether that’s a stick that they can break off of a tree or that’s a phone that they can pick up and grab that email rather than having to pull their laptop out of their bag, we have to now start thinking about the whole environment, because now digital is pervading and ambient in the whole environment. We’ve got this internet of things going on where your Nest thermostat, your smart home devices, your car, all these things are networked and interrelated. So in a way, we almost have to get past this idea of, well, now we have these mobile devices. We really need to think about how the whole ecosystem works. So in a way mobile was sort of a gateway drug into, I think, having to really just break out of the screen in general and not think about screens as much. Of course we didn’t have to design for screens, but we have to that understanding the whole picture.


Byron:                                   When you say expanding our environment, could you define environment? It’s the center piece of your book I know, but does it mean culture, does it mean tools, does it mean devices, does it mean the language we use? What does environment really mean to you?


Andrew:                              Well, it’s all those things. If you think of any creature, like I’ve got two Boston terriers, their environment is the people, the other dogs, and what they think of as their pack, our house, our yard, when we go on a walk, their daycare. They’ve got these different places and they’ve got these objects and things that they have to interact with just to get around, just to eat, just to live their lives and meet the needs that they have. We’re really no different. It’s just that we have this added layer of language on everything, because humans are a symbolic species. So over a millennia developed symbolic language, and that’s added a whole other dimension to our environment. You’ve got environment in terms of physical information, which is just the stuff that we walk on and touch and the food we eat, then we’ve got this sort of linguistic dimension of it, what I’m calling semantic information that humans have added to create whole other structures. You could be working in an office that’s just one big floor with a bunch of tables, but there’s an orchard that structures the way you’re going to work together in ways that walls don’t. That’s just made of language. So that’s all part of environment. That’s just one way to frame it, but that’s the primary way I frame it in the book. And then what happened was we added this whole digital information thing, and that really scrambled how all that stuff works. It scrambles what a place means to us, what a word means to us. When we touch a book made out of paper, it doesn’t do anything back. But now when we touch our book in our Kindle, it does something back. Digital enables all these things that weren’t possible before and we’re still, I think, catching up to what we’ve done with technology in terms of making context understandable to people. But that’s the framework I use to describe environment, but really just environment is, ecologically speaking, just the surroundings that we live in, all the stuff that we live in.


Byron:                                   In the end of the day, a lot of what you’re describing and talking about is of course design, and I wanted to ask you…design a product and try and make products better, right? Try and sell more products, right? I mean that’s the mission. I wanted to ask you how you think some of the new age thinking on customer experience fits with your book, mainly the customer journey throughout the whole cycle. We used to have…I’ll sort of just footnote a little bit more by saying, with customer experience we often have not thought about customer experience in a total way where it starts with your marketing department and the look and the feel of your brand and your brand voice, and then the sales department and the experience that you feel there when someone does a trial of your product, and maybe they get a phone call within five minutes and a book in the mail if they buy something from you like they actually do at WriterAccess…We mail books out…So there’s all these experiences happening. Do you ever worry that people remain in silos and don’t think about the overall customer experience? And when you say environment, is that what you’re talking about, that total experience?


Andrew:                              Yeah. If you were a scientist, a biologist or a zoologist, or I don’t know what would do this, but you go and you observe how a creature lives in the wild, you’re not going to silo where you’ve got one person thinking about where they’ll get water and somebody else thinking about where they’ll get food. You’re going to pay attention to how that creature lives their whole life, appropriating everything in their environment. That’s really the same thing, except that we’ve got multiple kinds of technology, multiple touch points. It’s more complex in a lot of ways because of all the stuff that humans have created and added to our environment. But yes, that’s what I mean by environment. So when I’m saying frame what we’re doing as an environmental design, what that does is that I don’t have to remember that…Yeah, we have to focus in silos sometimes, but more and more we can’t get by with just focusing in that silo. So back when it was all media was more broadcast oriented, you didn’t really have to line it up that much because it didn’t all link together, but now it does. Now somebody is going to be looking at their website while they’re reading their brochure, or while they’re on the phone with their customer service representative. This is all the stuff you need to line up in some way. It doesn’t mean it has to be straight-jacketed, but it means that it needs a spine or a skeleton or a nervous system that keeps it all coherent. And so when you mention customer experience, I mean I think customer experience is a nice way of framing things. I’ve been pushing even in my employer now to go beyond that and to think of this as…I like how service design does things because it does broaden the aperture a little more in terms of when you really can understand what the customer is going through and so you really understand all the layers in the cake from the databases on up to the service personnel. But then even beyond that, at some point you have to frame the whole environment, not privileging just one actor or the other, because you do need to be able to zoom in and look through the eyeballs of the customer service representative too, as if they were our customer”.


Byron:                                   That’s true.


Andrew:                              …or the sales agent, or the data entry person, because all of those things create sometimes like this house of cards or this Jenga stack where if one block isn’t paid attention to, everything else falls apart. And ideally we’d be creating more resilient systems than that, but then also, looking at it as a whole system then forces you to have to think more about making systems that are less brittle, so in many ways it brings a lot of benefits.


Byron:                                   How do people put context into what they touch as they navigate around the digital environments? Is there a new sense of context that the digital marketplace is bringing together? You talk about that as a core element in the book.


Andrew:                              Yeah. I don’t know about the marketplace per se. I mean when we… I go into some lengths in the book to try to describe how it is that the invention of like binary digital information, just the fundamental nature of it, it scrambles and kind of…destabilizes is a better word. It destabilizes the way that we understood our environment before. We’ve had millions of years as creatures to understand just the physical world. We’ve had millennia to understand language and what it means, and it’s more complicated in a lot of ways than the physical world, because a word can mean many different things depending on the context. But then we add this digital piece and it makes it so that now if I’m walking down my hall from my bedroom to my bathroom, it isn’t just about walking down the hall anymore. It’s also because my Nest thermostat knows that I’m walking back and forth and it’s making decisions on how it’s going to heat or cool my home because I’m walking. So there’s this invisible process happening in the world around me that I’m not necessarily aware of. Or if I’m a content creator in a company and I’m putting something into a content management system and I’m thinking it’s for this one project, but it’s not clear to me all the other invisible places where that content is going to go, and if that hasn’t been modelled properly, then I might put something in there that is really just not going to fit, the other places where the organization wants to use that content. And you couldn’t do that in nearly the same scale before digital information. It was like once I typed something, it was typed and it was done and it was going to go in one ad, and why would we think about anywhere else where it’s going to go! So this reuse, this disorientation that can happen because of digital stuff, that’s why we need to focus on context a lot harder than we really had to before.

Byron:                                   What primary role does context play in the decision-making process? Is it more in the awareness phase or the experience phase or the consideration phase, the purchasing phase?


Andrew:                              Oh, it’s the same. You’re about like the funnel…Well, it’s equally… I mean context is one of the things where it’s just equally present and important everywhere all the way through, so that’s why the book is less about step by step how to do a thing; it’s more about understanding the principles underneath it, because then you can apply it to whatever. Because the thing is that that funnel that you just described, that’s just one way of mapping things, but it isn’t necessarily square one to one with reality. Reality is always more complex than the model [0:15:55 crosstalk]


Byron:                                   Yeah, right.


Andrew:                              So that’s why I was trying not to be too reductionist in the book and I was trying to…And honestly, I probably cut myself out of 90% of my potential audience by being more principle-based rather than here’s how to do it step by step. But I just couldn’t do the step by the step because I knew it was too brittle. I really needed to explore the underpinnings of how it works.


Byron:                                   Okay. So I’m going to answer that question the wrong way and you can tell me right or wrong, but I think what you’re saying is context would fit in all of those stages of the funnel, and that’s the whole point, is to help consistently find context in strange and mysterious ways.


Andrew:                              Yeah, understanding the principles of how it functions and how when we make stuff such as the taxonomy that you just mentioned where you go from awareness to consideration to blah blah blah...Every time we create some kind of model or map of the world, we’re using language to kind of narrow down on one interpretation. And the way context works actually goes beyond that. It’s actually kind of meta because it’s…Just describing what you just described created a context for understanding the way people interact with a brand. And part of what the book is getting at is you have to always be ready to reframe models like that, because eventually you may need a different way of looking at it. Ideally, a very pluralistic approach where you’ve got multiple models that are all sort of in checks and balances with each other. Because I’ve seen in companies over and over again where they latch onto one way of seeing something, and then before you know it – give it a year – and everybody has forgotten all the complexity; all they’ve latched onto is this one simple model. And then they find themselves trying to cram square pegs in a round hole all the time. So yeah, I mean context is an ongoing consideration like a lot of other things in terms of just the principles of how stuff works in the world.


Byron:                                   How does language fit in, the language we use, the actual content that we use? How does that fit with context?


Andrew:                              Well, yeah, so for humans…


Byron:                                   And a smart guy like you…I should ask you, because you’re so smart obviously, and much smarter than all of us listening, but neurologically, that’s the interesting question…how does language fit?


Andrew:                              Yeah. There’s actually some really interesting work going on in a number of different fields trying to figure out how it is that cognition and language actually work together, how is it that we actually understand… like how is that when I’m driving down the road…When I first started driving, I had to think really hard about what a stop sign means, but it didn’t take long to where my body just reacts to a stop sign almost without any thought. I treat it as if there’s an actual wall on the road, almost. So there’s some really interesting work going on around that. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t really address it to a great deal of expertise, but it is an important thing because we’re getting to where we need to understand the human machine, so to speak, in such a way that we really know what it is that we’re firing off in people when we put certain things in front of them, because we really can’t assume that they…Even in your own smartphone, there’s just so much complexity going on. I can never remember what the tap, win, what the swipe from one app to the next; it’s all so convoluted. All of that is a language issue, because there aren’t physical things in there. It’s just graphics, semantic information, signifiers. It’s graphics, it’s colors, it’s shapes, it’s words, it’s symbols; and so it’s really critical for us to get underneath that rather than just being like…People throw around wordings a lot without really digging into what that means, and so that’s part of what I try to do in the book as well. So all of that that’s with this sort of embodied cognitive way of understanding how do brains and bodies interact with their environment, and language is just really tricky because it’s not physical stuff. We put it on physical stuff, but it doesn’t have the same properties as like a rock or a hammer. You pick up a hammer, it’s going to be a hammer one way or the other, but you can use the word hammer in a lot of different contexts, like MC Hammer. That’s not the thing. If you put MC Hammer in front of me, I would not mistake MC Hammer for a ball-peen hammer or a claw hammer, but the word is still there. So language is slippery and weird and so that’s why we have to pay extra special attention to it, because it’s so much fuzzier.

Byron:                                   Only time for a few more questions. Here’s the first. How does A/B testing fit into understanding context?


Andrew:                              Yeah, I mean…But I think that understanding the way context works enriches and in some ways challenges, I think, the work we think A/B testing is doing for us. A/B testing is not the be-all-end-all. It’s a way of saying okay…This is a big question, man. I don’t know. It’d take an hour. But honestly, like just a couple of things, I mean…What is that you’re measuring when you’re A/B testing? Because by deciding on what it is that you’re measuring, you’re not measuring other stuff, and that’s okay. You just need to be very conscious of the fact that you’re not measuring that other stuff. I’ve seen measurements go on time and time again with metrics where so many assumptions were built into what they’ve chosen to measure, and really what they’re choosing to measure, there’s a lot of complexity underneath it that gets ignored. So you could do this A/B test, but you need to be thinking about the context you’re doing it in, who’s using it, because it could be that then you release that out in the wild with some other situation around it and it doesn’t work. Also an A/B test by definition is sort of a very narrow set of conditions that you’re trying to test against. When at many times you need to really be zooming out and thinking about, “Well, what are the other possibilities that we should be exploring besides just staying on this narrow road and saying whether blue or turquoise is going to work on this.” So you can A/B test yourself into such a corner if you’re not careful, if you’re not thinking about what we were talking about before, that whole environment issue.


Byron:                                   Two final questions for you, Andrew. Who would you like to hear from in our audience and how can they get a hold of you?


Andrew:                              I’m on Twitter, @inkblurt is my name there, I-N-K-B-L-U-R-T. My website is andrewhinton.com and I’ve got ways to contact on there. I don’t know. People who are generally interested in the content of the book and the issues that it’s trying to address, if you’re reading it and you’ve got questions about, well, what did you mean about this or whatever, I would welcome an opportunity to engage in a conversation around that.


Byron:                                   Terrific. I want to thank you for being here. Thanks very much.


Andrew:                              Thank you. I had a great time.


Byron:                                   Right on. I hope I challenged you wonderfully.


Andrew:                              That was great. It was just fine. I enjoyed the conversation very much.


Byron:                                   Great. Thanks for listening, everyone. We’ll see you next week. Thanks for tuning in.