Friday, March 31, 2006

Information Design: engineering datastreams

Note: This is an updated version of a post I wrote on my personal blog back in November of 2005.

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 (ID).

What is information design?
Wikipedia says that information design is “the design of visual displays of data.” I agree, but think there’s more to it than that. There’s a nebulous whole that includes the wikipedia definition, information architecture, usability engineering, engineering-style project design, lifehacks, Content Management Systems (CMS), and more.
This is a discipline that’s so new that not many people have heard of it. In fact, it’s hard to say exactly what ID is, but my best shot is to say that ID is design (product, software, analysis techniques, whatever) that’s geared towards:

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

Pioneers in the field might be people like Steve Jobs, David Allen, Edward Tufte, Garr Reynolds, or Don Norman. There are also companies like xplane, which generates information graphics, and firms like IDEO and Design Continuum that make heavy use of ID to manage their project workflow and sometimes deliver it as part of their consultation for a client, but the field still appears sparse and ill-defined (so here’s your chance to get in the door as a pioneer).

Information design problems
Perhaps the best way to clarify what I mean is through examples. Here are a few problems I’d imagine falling within the realm of ID.

  1. 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. Never before in history has the ratio of information to people been so high, so accessible, or so quick to grow.
  2. How do you design a life-management system? 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? (David Allen’s elegant solution is presented in his book, Getting Things Done, which I highly recommend.)
  3. How do you present your new project at a conference? (Steve Jobs is reportedly insanely good at this, according to Guy Kawasaki via Garr Reynolds.) 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?
  4. How do you simplify complex things into simple schema? 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 - thanks to Matt Colyer for the recommendation.) 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?
  5. How do you store working data amongst a group of people? 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?

Further Resources
I have not articulated this particularly well because the concept isn’t yet clear in my own mind. What do you think? Is there a better word for the conglomeration than “information design” (which already means something)? Is this a valid discipline, or a combination of many? Is this something that would be useful for people to study? Why? How can we make it so?

In addition to the links in the post above, 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. This is not an exhaustive list; further recommendations are very much welcome.

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