Preface

A PREFACE CAN BE MANY THINGS; this preface is two things. First, it gives a practical introduction to what this book is and what you can learn from it. Second, it tells a personal story about my reasons for writing the book and what I hope it will mean to you.

The Practical Bit

This book is about how information shapes and changes the way people experience context in the products and services we design and build. It’s not only about how we design for a given context, but how design participates in making context. It begins with how people understand context in any environment. Then, it explores how language takes part in that understanding, and how information architecture helps to shape context, and to make it better. It’s also an exploration, where “understanding” is more verb than noun; it’s less about defining the right answers than discovering the right questions.

Context is an abstract idea, but it brings concrete challenges. What defines the “place” a customer is in, if he’s shopping “online” and “in a store” at the same time? What determines the boundaries of a user’s identity if her social network has multiple layers of privacy controls? How does a user know if something is a button and not just a label? What does it mean if you put something “in the cloud,” but it’s also “on your phone” and “in your laptop”? When we say we are “here” what does that actually mean now that we can be interacting and talking in many places at once? From accidentally hitting Reply All to an email, to discovering that Facebook shared embarrassing photos with your in-laws, we’re facing the challenges of being immersed in contextually confusing environments.

Design needs handles we can grasp and manipulate to make context do what we intend: form understandable environments where users can meet their needs. To get there, we need to do some digging to understand what those handles are and what we’re changing in the world when we use them. So, although the book does cover a lot of theory, there’s nothing more practical than understanding the nature of our materials. If context is a material or medium that we can affect in user experiences, we should know what it’s made of and how it works.

Who Should Read This Book?

If you design or make products or services that connect one part of our lives to another part, you will get value out of this book. In coming years, context is going to be an increasingly critical part of any design project. And yet, we don’t have a mutual understanding of what context is, or what happens to context when we design something one way versus another. We talk a lot about “information” and “experiences” and “environments” and even “context,” but they’re amorphous, fuzzy concepts. We’ve reached a point in design practice at which we can’t rely on such foggy notions anymore. This book provides a way to understand and work with context, using information as a medium for making.

That said, I did write this book with an assumption that you have some experience as a designer and are interested in exploring these strange, complex questions that underlie the surface of our work. If you’re a beginner, you can get a lot out of it, but you won’t get “the basics”—even though the concepts here are, in some ways, more foundational than what we usually think of as “basic” theory and practice.

So This Book Teaches Methods for Designing Context?

Not really. This is definitely an “understanding how it works” book more than a “how to make stuff” book. It touches on methods and materials and has a lot of concrete examples. But really it’s meant to inform the methods we already use and to suggest some new ways of looking at them or doing them.

I also hope the book helps reframe some important aspects of what and how we design. For myself, the process of researching and writing this book has fundamentally rewired the way I see the world, especially when I plan and design environments for my clients. I’ve found this new perspective to be immensely valuable in my own work.

Why Information Architecture?

Although “information architecture” is in the title, this book isn’t only for self-described “information architects.” The structures we make and depend on for all sorts of design work involve information architecture. Architecture is the starting place for figuring out foundations, boundaries, and connections. Still, the book discusses areas of focus for other disciplines in some detail throughout, especially in the first half. If you’re an interaction designer, content strategist, usability engineer, researcher or other such profession, you will find plenty here that relates directly to your main work. And in the second half, hopefully it becomes clearer how intermingled and interdependent these practices are with one another and with information architecture.

Additionally, the reason why I became interested in context to begin with was information architecture, which is also my “home” community of practice. As a community (and as a relatively young, forming discipline) we have a complicated history of figuring out what information architecture is, what it actually does in the world, and what all that means. Although context is a much bigger topic than information architecture, and information architecture is about more than context, I decided the concerns of information architecture were where I’d spend most of my time in this exploration.

What Will You Learn from This Book?

Here is a sampling of the sorts of things you should take away from reading this book:

  • How people experience and comprehend context

  • Principles for designing environments in which context is more understandable and trustworthy

  • How affordance works, and how it informs everything users perceive and do

  • What placemaking and sensemaking mean, and how digital information can both enhance and disrupt how they work

  • How language, in all its forms, works as an important “raw material” for context design

  • Also how language has semantic function similar to the way that physical things have affordance, and what that means for digital interfaces and other environments

  • Models for understanding the personal context users bring to the environments we design—their situations, motivations, and narratives

These are just some highlights. Overall, the main take-away from this book will be a fresh perspective on what it means to design in a time when digital technology is saturating everything around us.

A Tour Through the Book’s Six Parts

The book is made up of 6 parts, each a sort of small book in itself. The parts build on each other through 22 continuously numbered chapters.

Part I The Context Problem: What It Is and How To Think About It

This first part explains what the book means by “context” and introduces some core ideas about context that will be explored throughout. Using an everyday travel scenario and a bit of historical background, it explains what the challenges are and how they came to be. It also sets up the three-part model we work with through the rest of the book.

Part II Physical Information: The Roots of Context

This part provides a foundation for how users comprehend environments. It explains the theory of affordance, the essential dynamics of perception and embodied cognition, and a framework for describing the structural elements of environments, including the Principle of Nesting, and how Surfaces, Objects, and Events combine to make Places. Although this part is mainly about nontechnological topics, it includes examples to show how these concepts are relevant to designed products and services.

Part III Semantic Information: Language as Environment

In this part, we investigate how language (speech, gestures, text, and pictures) works as an additional environmental layer of “semantic function,” and how that affects context. This part touches on essential concepts about signs and symbols and how we use forms of semantic information for simulating physical environments in user interfaces. It also discusses placemaking and sensemaking and how language structures our contextual experience.

Part IV Digital Information: The Pervasive Influence of Code

Part IV shows how digital information is, at its core, meaningful to computers more than humans. It also shows how that dynamic influences how we experience physical and semantic information. This part demonstrates how digital information makes it possible to create environments and places that don’t behave like the physical world, and how that can be both good and bad.

Part V The Maps We Live In: Information Architectures for Places and People

This part brings the ideas from the previous four parts together to show how information works as systems of meaning. The chapters within it explore examples from different kinds of placemaking, using “maps” as a framing device for how we change our territories, or make new ones. It explains how these environments affect our social relationships, conversations, and identities. This part focuses more on the architectural concerns of how place works and less on the object-level concerns of a particular interaction.

Part VI Composing Context: Making Room for Making Meaning

The last part introduces composition as a useful way of looking at how we use information to shape context, including how the composed environment requires a stable ground to build and act upon. Part VI describes how we use materials of semantic function in the form of Labels, Relationships, and Rules—aligned with ontology, taxonomy, and “choreography.” It explores how people construct their experience through narrative and story, and how they participate in creating those narratives. And finally, Part VI looks at some principles for accommodating meaning-making, and some techniques for understanding context and modeling new environments.

The Personal Bit

When I began this writing project, my aim was to make a slender, deft volume of focused essays. A “thoughts about context, for design” kind of book. Three years later, I’m putting the final touches on a tome collecting, in essence, six little books, trying to solve the mysteries of the universe.

Funny how things like this work out.

* * *

Here’s what got me started:

For a long time—since before I worked with technology for a living—I’ve wondered about how it is that language makes experience. How is it that a novel can captivate us and make us feel as if we’ve lived through those events? How does a table-top game construct a shared place in which events occur that we might remember and talk about years later, even though nothing “real” happened? Why is it that a poet can break a line—in just such a way that it breaks the reader’s heart?

When I eventually found myself in a software-related profession, my obsession only grew. When logging in to a system to move files around, what is it I’m affecting with commands such as “get” or “put.” It’s just bits, being rearranged on the same disc, but somehow those words make it relevant to my body. When exploring early social architectures such as UseNet, Internet Relay Chat, or later, LiveJournal, I noticed how deeply I sometimes felt about my conversations there, and how these places were meaningful as places. How is that possible? They’re just virtual marks on virtual surfaces, which aren’t even as real as the printed type in a paper book.

Soon, I found a community where many people were wondering similar things. They were talking to one another under a loosely shared label: information architecture. Something about that phrase clicked for me—yes, I thought, that’s what’s going on: information that somehow feels as if we live in it; structures, rooms, passageways. Not virtual reality, exactly. It’s information that shares some of the qualities of space, whose places become as meaningful for us as any other places in our lives.

As someone who now identifies as an “information architect,” I kept working at these questions, until it occurred to me that so much of what I was doing for a living was repairing problems with context. Software is doing something to the world that is detaching and rupturing context from whatever helped it make sense before we had computers, networks, and hyperlinks. Eventually, with encouragement, and after many conference talks and articles, I decided to write a book about that.

* * *

When you start writing a book about something, suddenly ideas that you thought you had all figured out seem flimsy and unformed. After finishing what I thought was the first third of the book, I grew worried—what if none of what I think about this is true? So, I did some further research to validate my hunches.

I discovered my hunches were sometimes on track, and often really wrong, and that this thing we call context is actually not well understood. Among academics, there is rigorous work being done, but it isn’t exactly settled science. Yet, even the best of that work wasn’t making it into the general conversation of design practitioners and in the popular “UX” literature.

I realized that if I were to take this book seriously, I couldn’t just think aloud on the page about what the answers might be. So, six months into my work, I had to set aside the chapters I’d already drafted and take the time to really learn the subject as best I could, while writing about what I was discovering. A couple years and quite a few pages later, here I am revising the preface for publication.

Here’s the thing: I’m not finished. The more I learned, the more I saw there would be to discover. Hence, as I mentioned at the beginning, “understanding” is something I hope we can do together, both in this book and beyond it. To that end, I invite you to visit this book’s home site (www.contextbook.com), where additional content and links will accumulate, including a bibliography.

My wish for these ideas isn’t that they be absolutely right (though some of that is nice), but that they help move along the work we do together toward making better places, good and human places, for the people who dwell in them.

So, now, let’s dig in.

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