Design’s role is to bridge context gaps

Andrew Hinton on making context understandable, smart devices, and programming literacy.


I sat down with Andrew Hinton, an information architect at The Understanding Group and author of the recently released O’Reilly book Understanding Context. Our conversation included a discussion of information architecture’s role in the context of the IoT, the complexities of context, and the well-debated “everyone should learn to code” argument.

Context, information architecture, and experience design

Information architecture (IA) has always been a critical part of creating great products and services, and many would argue that, until now, it hasn’t been given the attention or respect it deserves. The need for thoughtful IA is increasing as we enter the multimodal world of IoT. Whether you call yourself an Information Architect or Designer, you need to care about context. Hinton offers up this hidden motivation for writing Understanding Context:

“I’ll confess, the book is a bit of a Trojan horse to kind of get people to think about information architecture differently than maybe the way they assume they should think about it.”

I followed up with Hinton via email for a bit more on how we need to view IA:

“People tend to assume IA is mainly about arranging objects, the way we arrange cans in a cupboard or books in a library. That’s part of it, but the Internet has made it so that we co-exist in places made of semantic and digital information. So when we create or change the labels, relationships, and rules of those places, we change their environment. Not just on screens, but now outside of screens as well. And, to me, the central challenge of that work is making context understandable.”

Devices are a long way from smart

As users, we expect more and more from our devices. We expect them to know us — really know us, anticipate our needs, and learn our routines. The emergence of smart devices is a clear sign of our future, but the experiences are far from perfect. Hinton notes:

“We do a disservice to the contextual clarity or meaning of what we’re doing to an environment people are in if we put stuff in it and we tell them, ‘well it’s smart, right?’ This light bulb is smart or this thermostat is smart — it is going to watch how you behave in your home, and it’s going to figure out all of that. It doesn’t actually know how to communicate with you; even if you gave it a voice and a really friendly demeanor, you would be sort of giving it this illusion of empathy that it doesn’t actually have. That can actually be dangerous … this idea that we position these things as if, oh, you can just trust it because it looks and sounds as if it really gets you, but it really can’t.

“Artificial intelligence is getting pretty advanced, but it’s only getting really good at certain things and not really understanding the full human context of us and what we need. One reason the book is so focused on language is because, really, the only way to do that is through communication, through language. It is figuring out ways that this system and people can coexist and understand each other and perceive each other accurately, and interpret when it proceeds in useful ways.”

Hinton goes on to explain that it is design’s role to bridge the gap, to make the connections and make meaning for the user.

“It is our responsibility [as designers] to understand how the things we make perceive the world around them and to understand how the people who have to interact with those things are going to understand them. We need to make sure that the way we structure and the way they communicate or signify their meanings is going to make sense to people.”

On technical literacy

We discussed the growing demands on anyone creating products. Whether you call yourself an information architect or a designer, you need to know more about more to remain relevant. Hinton explains what he thinks are the most important skills to learn and where technical literacy fits in the designer’s skill set. To that point, Hinton shares his take on the “everyone should learn to code” discourse:

“There are people who do digital design work who have never tried to code anything. I do think it’s a good idea to get your hands dirty with some code.

“It is a good idea to understand the basics of what it means to design a database — like to know what a relationship diagram is, that’s an important exercise just because it leads you through having to think about how to organize things in ways that separate certain kinds of meaning. That is important, but it doesn’t mean that you should be able to code a whole prototype or that you should be able to design an actual SQL database.

“It’s not so much about what the industry is saying; it’s all important. I think it’s a matter of looking at what’s going on around you and seeing what sparks your interests, trying pieces of it. If nothing else, it makes you more empathetic for the other disciplines and the other people you’re working with. It helps you to realize that, for example, even if you went to design school, you didn’t learn everything about design in design school. There is all kinds of other stuff going on now in this incredibly multidisciplinary world where it takes different perspectives, different ways of thinking, different styles of approaching a problem, all of them together.”

You can listen to the entire interview on the SoundCloud player above or on our SoundCloud stream.

Cropped image on article and category pages by Paul Englefield on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigations into Experience Design and Business and Experience Design and the Internet of Things.

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