JASIST Information Architecture Column Dec/Jan 2005

Pace, Timing and Rhythm in Information Architecture

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, Dec/Jan 2005*

Increasingly the technologies of information which mediate our routine activities seem to have been built on a simplistic presumption of efficiency, the belief that faster is always better, that speed is the single most important criterion in user satisfaction or adoption. Notwithstanding the volume of empirical evidence that would throw doubt on this presumption, there is a more compelling reason for questioning what is driving information architecture in the early 21st century. Most of us do not rely solely on one application or even one computing device. Many of us are, as users at this moment in time, probably in possession of half a dozen information devices implemented on separate hardware (think office computer, laptop, home computer, mobile phone, PDA, and you see a huge potential list before you even start to consider the information devices we use for entertainment or add in the processing power of current automobiles). Many of these (most of them?) do not even recognize each other and require us to either maintain multiple copies of the same information on different devices or to keep single devices around for the unique contribution each makes to our activities.

But more than this, the whole efficiency paradigm has brought with it, or at the very least reflects, the ideology of instancy: rapid, continuous, updatable access with its commensurate faith in staying connected and contemporary. Almost no comment is made on the inevitable background tasks that must be performed just to get most information devices to work as intended or the costs associated with being permanently logged in. At the University of Texas we now advise junior faculty that they should not keep email open when in their office; instead they should deliberately and methodically set three times a day to check their inboxes and to reply to important messages, then switch off, freeing themselves to concentrate on what they were hired to do: teach and research. How odd that less than two decades ago this technology of communication was not even available to most of us, and now, apparently, we find users so tied up in its use that we have to warn them to take time out if they wish to be productive.

As an email addict, (yes, I get withdrawal symptoms too) it strikes me as quite amazing how easily we have overlooked the compulsive power of information architecture to demand attention. We are conditioned to thinking of such designs as successful. Websites are supposed to be sticky, they are supposed to change often enough that users are drawn back and, once there, discouraged from leaving. In an information universe that knows no time or space barriers, failure to attend quickly and repeatedly to the dynamic of updates is akin to deeming yourself a fuddy-duddy, a stick in the mud who needs to get with the program. Don’t you love those people who send you emails asking why you have not answered their last email? A message sent is an obligation assumed, only the assumption is on the innocent recipient. Did anyone imagine the costs of this social contract when they started designing messaging systems?

I have been thinking of this efficiency drive and how it affects our lives and response to information as a result of listening, of all things, to vinyl records. LPs have about 20 minutes of music per side, they discourage jumping about or skipping tracks, tend not to work on multi-disk players, and worse, the best turntables require the user to be present to lift the stylus off at the end of a side and manipulate the disk to hear more music. The result of all this user activity, which adds considerably to the effort of music listening, is that users of records and turntables tend to actually listen. If you sit down after starting to play an LP it is quite a bit of effort to skip forward, there is no remote control, and you tend not to treat the music as background sound since you have to remember to lift the stylus at the end. From a typical usability standpoint, turntables are disaster (and I’ve not even mentioned the care and maintenance involved in making the medium work well), but for me, listening on vinyl tends to create a very different experience of music than using a modern CD player or even an iPod. The whole interaction is paced differently and the consequent engagement, the level of human-information interaction, takes on a different quality that cannot be reduced to simple usability metrics. Within that space, human responses are qualitatively different, paced according to the IA underlying their presentation.

Scaling up the numerous devices and information architectures competing for my diminishing attentional resources makes me wish there were some way for us to talk at a more macro level when discussing information. But this is not just a matter of ubiquity or usability, this is really about the human rhythm of information use, the coupling of person and process. I do not believe we are fixed in this regard (outside of the basic parametric ranges of our underlying biological and cognitive architectures, of course), since humans have shown themselves to be marvelously adaptable, especially when it comes to information designs, but I do think there are two rhythmic aspects to consider: the optimum one for a given activity and the effects of altering rhythmic aspects on the experience we have of the information. Is this an issue for IAs to consider? I have no doubt that it is, but it surely belongs to the macro IA camp (as I now refer to Big IA), made up of a surprisingly micro number of folks, regrettably. But we can work on this.

Is there a temporal aspect to interaction that we should acknowledge? Surely there is a pace that leads to the best fit for each of us between tool and task, between goal and accomplishment, between resource and purpose. Sometimes making it faster just works against making it better, and I am not sure where this insight finds resonance in information architecture or systems design. The rhythm of interaction is partly set by the underlying design choices and that makes it matter of IA for me. Pace, timing and rhythm; there’s a whole world of information architecture yet to be done.

Comments and reactions to this column can be emailed to adillon@ischool.utexas.edu

*This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 31, No. 2 December/January 2005, a publication of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1320 Fenwick Lane, Suite 510, Silver Spring, MD 20910 USA. Phone 1 (301)495-0900 http://www.asis.org