Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Information Design - a new discipline?

I've been thinking a lot lately about knowledge management and its ultimate usefulness (or uselessness, depending). Data continues to burgeon, and we're totally unprepared as a society to handle it. We need a thinking shift. I'm not sure I would call it knowledge management, if by knowledge management we mean "Look, lots of data - store it." A better term might be information design. I'm not sure if this is a discipline that already exists; if it does, some pioneers might be people like Steve Jobs, Edward Tufte, Garr Reynolds, or Don Norman. If it doesn't exist, I think we need it. We need design (product, software, analysis techniques, whatever) that's geared towards

(1) communication and
(2) organization/productivity.

How do we make use of massive streams of data while still getting things done? We can't shut the doors and say"we can't deal with this much input, so we'll ignore its existence." We can't go "All right, let 'er in!" and then drown in overload. There is too much to do; there is too little time and too few people. (3 people + 2 days + 12 people-days of work = Olin Syndrome.)

Forget motivational speakers and their exhortations to "take charge of your life" and "get organized." We know all that stuff. We roll our eyes at it. Our work habits are still a mess. It's like the couch potato that knows he should hop off his bum, stop eating TV dinners, and exercise. And yet he doesn't. How can he create a plan so he will? This is an information design problem.

Or you're presenting your new project at a conference. (Steve Jobs is reportedly insanely good at this.) How do you manage your slides, your speech, your lighting, your talk - how do you get your audience engaged and engrossed in your concept? Numbing their brains with powerpoint bullets is not the right solution, but what is? This is an information design problem.

You want to explain to your students the design process they're about to go through. You want it on a poster you can tack to the studio wall, but there's so much data to abstract. (Edward Tufte is reportedly insanely good at this.) You don't want a gigantic text dump, but at the same time, a big unlabeled triangle doesn't really tell you much... how do you make content concise yet intuitive, simple yet full of meaning? This is an information design problem.

You're working with a software team. Bug reports and revisions are flying through the air. How do you create a CMS to hold it all together? How do you share information, delegate tasks, ask questions, talk to one another, keep the wheels turning smoothly - what makes a good team good, and what can bad teams do to get better (or is all hope lost for certain group dynamics?) Where do you store what you know? This isn't just a matter of what variable name in what database on what server; this is also things like "Betty's our resident skateboarding expert, but Dan is really good at giving speeches" that nobody ever writes down but everyone just internalizes. How do you formally describe this so you can make the process better? This is an information design problem.

I have not articulated this very well because the concept isn't yet clear in my own mind. I'm hoping it'll come together soon. I'd love to hear what other people have to say, even (especially) if it's "Mel, you're crazy," "It'll never work," or "Someone's done this already." (In that case, let me know who they are so I can learn from them!)

The following websites give a strange, hop-and-skip spot overview of what I'm thinking about. None of them quite hits it, but all of them, with the addition of sociology, psychology, human factors, cognitive science, graphic design, marketing, theatre, and communications (and lions, tigers, and bears oh my!) blossom fairly close to the space I'm trying to define. ("Geek to live, not live to geek.") (I'm planning an informal series of HFID-style experiments to test these out. Any interest in being a co-experimenter... or guinea pig? Both?) (who wants to go to his seminar in the spring with me?)


Matt said...

I love this stuff, you are looking at all the right people. I highly recommend getting a Tufte book and reading through it.

As for the programming thing there are bug systems and source code management systems, which when used correctly are quite effective. I think Trac ( does the best job of presenting all of this data in a nice neat manner.

Scott said...

Design Crux said...

This is a worthy exploration which doesn't take place nearly enough. We simply take for granted everything and anything and everything related to computer work is automatically information.

There are some big challenges ahead. For one thing there is little consensus for detection of information quality or failure (other than hindsight). And what is this term information? Most of the ways in which the word is used are quite uninformative and somewhat academic, where business is nothing if not pragmatic. I've tried to outline a framework for taking on these challenges, an information designer's toolkit, so to speak.

pdf23ds said...

I don't see how the solutions to these different problems can be usefully classified under a single heading. A couch potato doesn't care about information, he cares about psychology and possible neurology. It doesn't really have much to do with the organization and presentation of information.

Similarly, the presentation and communication of information can be divided into two main levels. First is how to get people's attention (and who's attention to get, and through what channels). This is the main problem you have to solve with problems like organizational inertia and network effects and other group dynamics. And then there's how to best present the information once you've gotten someone's attention. And that's a completely separate domain, and doesn't have too much overlap. And insofar as those two things are part of a larger process, then sure, let's make tools that take care of all of it. But it'll be tools that solve more than one problem.

I actually think about this stuff quite a bit day-to-day. I'm one of four programmers in a software startup. We also have two people that go and install our software (it's multi-user software that sells for 5-7 digits), and handle support calls. I've been on since the beginning, and I've been able to see how organization problems start, and resolved many of them, and am still resolving others and optimizing things even more. I still have a sense that I'm not doing quite as much as I could be, though. (Indeed, part of it is that the work itself tends to the boring side, and so I don't get a lot done on the actual hands-on work compared to what I could.)

Mel said...


I'm not sure what you're saying. Psychology is very much a part of information design (which is, as I found later, a big umbrella under which many things are falling) - the couch potato hypothetically has information about how to get healthy available, but it hasn't been made into usable form for him (or her) yet. If you were the couch potato or the couch potato's doctor, you could use information design principles to display health stats (what stats? where? how?), prompt the person in question to exercise (when? how?), provide them with motivators (your friends are doing this too! look, you've burned 6000 calories since Tuesday!) - the important thing being not that we've "made data pretty," but that we've sifted through the immense amount of available data and made the right data useful.

The presentation and communication aspects as you've defined it sound much more like what advertisers have been trying to do for years. I don't know how to define information design, but that's because I think it's a field, not a specific problem to be solved. It's like trying to define sociology, mathematics, or physics. Any field has many connections that blur into other fields. Any field has applicability to a wide range of problems, its own way of thinking, and a set of (usually thought) tools that are typically applied to a variety of things. So the overlaps and fuzziness in definition you describe aren't necessarily indications that information design isn't actually a field in its own right - I actually take them as an indication that it might be.

Perhaps a more concise way of describing (not defining) information design is that it deals with and creates things for data overload? I'm still struggling with what information design is, myself.