Kat King is an information architect, and works at the University of Michigan School of Information.
IA Summit 2015 Main Conference Talk
Topic(s): language and psychology
As information architects, we are responsible for understanding and communicating what is, and, in doing so, shaping what will be. In order to do this well, and ethically, we need to understand the structures which shape reality: how are they formed and maintained? How does our work resist or uphold existing structures and narratives? How can we make sure we are looking where we ought to be?
Richard Saul Wurman’s LATCH, is one tool for understanding meaning, and when used correctly it is an important tool, but it doesn’t go far enough to help us question or even see the most pernicious structures that shape our reality. What do the fields of philosophy, psychology, and language tell us about how these structures are created and maintained, and how can we make sure the solutions we are architecting are good, not just because they are easy to use, or meet client specifications, but because they actively resist harmful structures, and support beneficial ones?
Kat King: Hello. I’m a Millennial, so we have to do this first.
Kat: You’re all on Twitter now. Hi. I’m Kat King. I go by katalogofchaos pretty much anywhere you get a username. I’m here to talk to you guys about how what you do for a living is architecting reality.
When I proposed this talk, I had some takeaways in mind, which I still want to stick to. Which are that I want you guys to understand that we live in a shared reality that’s sustained by our continued use of it, that nothing is neutral, and that we have an ethical duty as information architects to be aware of the structures that we’re upholding and how they impact our future.
I planned on doing this by exploring Richard Saul Wurman’s LATCH, partially because trying to figure that out is what got me here and partially because I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s deeply flawed and we’re all using it wrong.
Imagine my surprise when I read on the IA Summit blog that I was going to be discussing the shortcomings of Richard Saul Wurman. That sounds a lot more personal than I hoped that it would. I met him once for 10 minutes, but I’m not sure that gives me enough information to criticize him personally.
In case anybody came here to see some drama, I am going to pick on him. He coined the phrase “Information architecture.” He’s done a lot of amazing work, and there’s a lot of inspiring lessons to be found in his work, for sure, but I have a problem with the way he talks about what he does.
I don’t think it’s the same as what we do, or what we should be doing. I keep hearing Richard Saul Wurman say things like this, “This is not for the good of humanity.” I wholesale stole this from Dan Klyn‘s World IA Day talk. I’ve heard Wurman say this live several times, but I could not find video of it.
He says that the work he does is because he’s curious, and he wants to understand something. He just delves deeply in it until he understands it, and then he shares that understanding, and he hopes that it’s useful to others. I suspect he and I have a different opinion on Truth.
Beyond that, most of us are not following our whims and creating things for ourselves because we’re curious. We’re creating things for others, and sometimes things that others will be forced to use. If we want to create good things, I think we need to be thinking about other people, how they’ll use what we create, and how what we create will impact all of us all day, every day obsessively.
I use the word “Good,” and I’m a student of Dan Klyn, which means I have to define it now. When I say I want to do good work, I want to do work which challenges structures of inequality, that helps more people be healthy and happy, that helps them have agency over their own lives and control of their own meanings.
I also want to do things that help other people make choices that lead to the above, both for themselves and for other people. That’s a big goal, I know, and if we’re going to get there, I think we need to accept that understanding isn’t enough. There isn’t some magical point at which you’ve understood what is and can authoritatively communicate it to others.
We need to try to understand all the “Whats” that are, and imagine the “Whats” that could be, and then choose one truth to communicate. Which means we need to figure out some big, scary questions first like how do we know what we know? How do I know what I know is real? How do I know there’s a Truth? What is the meaning of life?
This can get out of control pretty quickly. I’m not here to have an existential crisis on stage though I sometimes describe my life as one big, public existential crisis. What I want to communicate is that Carl Sagan is right. If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. If you want to architect some information, you need to create reality.
Let’s get back to LATCH for a minute, because I promise they’re related. LATCH is Richard Saul Wurman’s five ways to organize information. It’s either five of the ways or the only five ways, depending which time he’s talking about it. They are location, alphabet, time, category, and hierarchy.
The first time I encountered them, I thought of them like some sort of convenient sorting machine. It gets written about this way on UX blogs sometimes. I want to organize some DVDs, so I’m going to just shove them in the top of this machine and choose location. Out the bottom, they’ll come sorted by where the director’s from or something.
It doesn’t work that way. The more you try to use it, the more it doesn’t work that way. I decided to try and think really critically about it. I couldn’t get it to address meaning the way I wanted, and I had a sneaking suspicion that I had been organizing things in ways that LATCH didn’t address.
This is my final exam from Dan Klyn’s information architecture class where I gave zero thoughts to LATCH. I organized Starbucks website by which personal social meaning the products supported for me. Things on the left support my identity as fast and on-the-go, and hip with technology.
Things on the right are things that support my identity as deep, and reflective, and being able to appreciate the finer things in life. I couldn’t figure out where that was in LATCH. I started really puzzling over this, and that led me to trying to figure out what is reality and how are we putting it together?
I realized that whatever we’re organizing, it’s not the Truth of these things. It’s the shared reality. I have to make a confession here that I don’t think there is a Truth that is knowable by us.
I see no reason evolutionarily to think that that’s an ability we would have developed, no argument philosophically that it matters to my personal existence, and no evidence psychologically that I’m even any good at accurately noticing the things I can notice about whatever objective reality there might actually be.
We are all busy staying alive, and we’re pretty good at that. I think of reality as a series of desire paths. If you don’t know, a desire path is the name of these dirt paths that start to appear in the grass when people are sick of sidewalks. They have an efficient route. They want to go from here to there.
I have something to do. I don’t have time for whatever objective way you’ve decided is the right way for me to get somewhere. We have a crazy reality of chaos and a hot mess of desire paths on top of it. We have things to get done, and this is how we get them done. I think of reality as multiple layers of these.
We have shortcuts for our shortcuts, and they overlap, and they intersect, and they’re just as chaotic, maybe, as the reality that they’re helping us shortcut. This is where we do information architecture. If you work on an e-commerce site that’s organizing, say, hats, you don’t care about the objective reality of the hat. You care about what makes it a hat.
What does it mean to you? What does it mean to your client? What does it mean to your client’s customers? None of that is objectively real. It’s a part of these shortcuts of meaning that we have.
I’ve come to understand LATCH as being a tutorial for pushing on things — that should have been animated — to see how they are connected to these structures so that we can understand what they mean to us and mean to others. Location and time are spatial and temporal structures.
Even though there’s lots of substructures in those, we all have a shared understanding of time and space. If you’re from the West, you probably understand that you look forward towards the future, and back towards your past, and that you can only go in one direction. You probably understand that, spatially, I can only be in one place at one time.
We share those understandings, even if the labels we’re putting and the substructures we’re using are different. Alphabet. We all have learned the alphabet, and even if the order is objectively just that order, we know it and we agree on it that A comes before B.
Continuum, because I don’t like the name hierarchy, is things that are on scales. It’s anything you can say it’s blank, blankier, and blankiest. We have an understanding of that relationship between things.
Category is supposedly subtype or a sub-thing, but I think that category is a cop-out. I think it essentially just means other. Once you label something, it becomes a category. How we choose which things become categories is complex and important, because once we choose it as a category, it becomes a path that we start using, and it’s really hard to change those paths.
There’s this guy, Creel Froman, that I like a lot. I’m not prepared to defend all of his thoughts, but he says some things that I think are really helpful for us. One of them is this. “Most of our lives are spent joining others in the recreation of conventional understandings. There is little encouragement to do more, and numerous reasons to remain within familiar realities.
This is important because these realities are like an ant bridge. They’re only real because we keep using them. If we stopped, they would disappear, and we could make a new one by all flipping our little ant bodies in a new direction.”
Creel Froman has these two quotes, which I like a lot, as well. “There are advantages to some imposing a language, truth, knowledge, and restricting the creation and circulation of other languages.” “Consequences of realities affect different people differently, and those advantaged solidify their advantages into structures.”
I want you to look around at this room and look at the people who are doing this for a living. We’re all advantaged. We all have a job that allows us to impose truth on others.
I don’t think that this group of people is representative enough that we are likely to be reinforcing structures that are good for everyone worldwide if we are only thinking about ourselves and our own understanding, or our users, or our business goals.
I want to be clear that I don’t mean this kind of misleading. This is from Abby’s book, where we’ve realized that 8 of 10 doctors do not recommend something, but we could still call it doctor-recommended. What I mean is the lazy acceptance of desire paths that we have always been using. We’ve used this for decades, or centuries, or millennia.
I know this is true because this is how it’s always been. I know this path is real because I use it every day. That’s not enough because we’re paid to think about this.
The kind of structures I’m talking about are the ones that lead to a shoe website letting you categorize by color and calling one of the colors “Nude” and only returning shoes that are that color. I don’t think that’s supporting structures that create equality for everybody.
I’m talking about allowing a marketing strategy where you have a building that literally says you can live above everyone else. Yes, it’s a tall tower, but that’s not what that means. I’m talking about health and beauty stores that have an ethnic hair care section that’s separate from their normal hair care section.
I’m talking about a hierarchy in an art museum that lists African art under African art. That supports a structure which says that European history is endlessly complex and rich and histories in other places, they only get one line. That’s a problem.
I’m talking about structures like this snowboard website which has freestyle snowboards and women’s freestyle snowboards, all-mountain snowboards and women’s all-mountain snowboards.
I’ve had some debates with people on the snowboard issue specifically where they tell me that snowboards need to be divided by gender because women have a different center of gravity, and we’re generally shorter and lighter. To which I say I am pretty sure that Gwendoline Christie is a woman, and I’m pretty sure that David Spade is a man.
I’m pretty sure they might need reverse snowboards. When you’re categorizing it like this, you’re supporting a structure that says these are women, these are men, these are the snowboards they can use.
I think that we have an ethical duty to stop this trash from being made. Like I said, we’re the people who get paid to think about this. Unless somebody cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. Thank you.
Host: Thank you so much, Kat. Any questions at this time?
Audience Member: First of all, thank you. This was a great presentation. If everyone in this room has the privilege and responsibility to do good, what do you recommend we do to do the most good?
Kat: I think you need to really think critically about every structure that you’re using, not accepting them as true. I think one of the problems is sometimes we organize things by asking popular opinion. What’s the most popular way to sort these things?
We’ll ask 50 people, and those 50 people were sorted, and whatever gets the most agreement, that’s what’s true. The problem is that those other people with other organizations, sometimes they just have a completely different way of looking at the world. If we organize it that way, no one’s going to get it.
Sometimes they have a valid alternative arrangement which is challenging some structure that oppresses them in some way. I think we have a duty to look at those alternate arrangements and say, “If I went this way, would all my users still understand what I meant?” I wouldn’t have to divide my snowboards by all and women’s.
All, by the way, all-mountain snowboards is only men’s snowboards for all mountain conditions. It’s not all of the mountain snowboards. If we divided them somehow by height or weight, our users would still be able to understand that and find the snowboard they wanted, but we wouldn’t be supporting this pernicious structure which divides people.
Host: Thanks a lot.
Kat: Thank you.