Years before becoming Prime Minister of the UK, Rishi Sunak wrote this report, Undersea Cables: Indispensable, insecure.
Thursday, August 10th, 2023
Sunday, December 4th, 2022
Tweaking navigation labelling
I’ve always liked the idea that your website can be your API. Like, you’ve already got URLs to identify resources, so why not make that URL structure predictable and those resources parsable?
That’s why the (read-only) API for The Session doesn’t live at a separate subdomain. It uses the same URL structure as the regular site, but you can request the resources in an alternative format: JSON, XML, RSS.
This works out pretty well, mostly because I put a lot of thought into the URL structure of the site. I’m something of a URL fetishist, but I think that taking a URL-first approach to information architecture can be a good exercise.
Most of the resources on The Session involve nouns like tunes, events, discussions, and so on. There’s a consistent and predictable structure to the URLs for those sections:
And then an idividual item can be found at:
That’s all nice and predictable and the naming of the URLs matches what you’d expect to find:
Tunes, events, discussions, sessions. Those are all fine. But there’s one section of the site that has this root URL:
When I was coming up with the URL structure twenty years ago, it was clear what you’d find there: track listings for albums of music. No one would’ve expected to find actual recordings of music available to listen to on-demand. The bandwidth constraints and technical limitations of the time made that clear.
Two decades on, the situation has changed. Now someone new to the site might well expect to hit a link called “recordings” and expect to hear actual recordings of music.
So I should probably change the label on the link. I don’t think “albums” is quite right—what even is an album any more? The word “discography” is probably the most appropriate label.
Here’s my dilemma: if I update the label, should I also update the URL structure?
Right now, the section of the site with
/tunes URLs is labelled “tunes”. The section of the site with
/events URLs is labelled “events”. Currently the section of the site with
/recordings URLs is labelled “recordings”, but may soon be labelled “discography”.
If you click on “tunes”, you end up at
/tunes. But if you click on “discography”, you end up at
Is that okay? Am I the only one that would be bothered by that?
I could update the URLs to match the labelling (with redirects for the old URLs, of course), but I’m not so keen on this URL structure:
It doesn’t seem as tidy as:
But if I don’t update the URLs to match the label, then I’m just going to have to live with the mismatch.
I’m just thinking out loud here. I think I should definitely update the label. I just won’t make any decision on changing URLs for a while yet.
Tuesday, August 30th, 2022
Improving the information architecture of the Smart Pension member app | Design and tech | Smart – retirement, savings and financial wellbeing
Here’s a really excellent, clearly-written case study that unfortunately includes this accurate observation:
In recent years the practice of information architecture has fallen out of fashion, which is a shame as you can’t design something successfully without it. If a user can’t find a feature, it’s game over - the feature may as well not exist as far as they’re concerned.
I also like this insight:
Burger menus are effective… at hiding things.
Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022
I was talking to someone recently about a forgotten battle in the history of the early web. It was a battle between search engines and directories.
These days, when the history of the web is told, a whole bunch of services get lumped into the category of “competitors who lost to Google search”: Altavista, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo.
But Yahoo wasn’t a search engine, at least not in the same way that Google was. Yahoo was a directory with a search interface on top. You could find what you were looking for by typing or you could zero in on what you were looking for by drilling down through a directory structure.
Yahoo wasn’t the only directory. DMOZ was an open-source competitor. You can still experience it at DMOZlive.com:
The official DMOZ.com site was closed by AOL on February 17th 2017. DMOZ Live is committed to continuing to make the DMOZ Internet Directory available on the Internet.
Search engines put their money on computation, or to use today’s parlance, algorithms (or if you’re really shameless, AI). Directories put their money on humans. Good ol’ information architecture.
It turned out that computation scaled faster than humans. Search won out over directories.
Now an entire generation has been raised in the aftermath of this battle. Monica Chin wrote about how this generation views the world of information:
Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.
Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.
Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.
We are finding a persistent issue with getting (undergrad, new to research) students to understand that a file/directory structure exists, and how it works. After a debrief meeting today we realized it’s at least partly generational.
We live in a world ordered only by search:
While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?
There are still hold-outs. You can prise files from Scott Jenson’s cold dead hands.
More recently, Linus Lee points out what we’ve lost by giving up on directory structures:
Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning. When it’s possible to take a “type in a query” kind of interface and make it more incrementally explorable, I think it’s almost always going to produce a more intuitive and powerful interface.
Directory structures still make sense to me (because I’m old) but I don’t have a problem with search. I do have a problem with systems that try to force me to search when I want to drill down into folders.
I have no idea what Google Drive and Dropbox are doing but I don’t like it. They make me feel like the opposite of a power user. Trying to find a file using their interfaces makes me feel like I’m trying to get a printer to work. Randomly press things until something happens.
Anyway. Enough fist-shaking from me. I’m going to ponder Linus’s closing words. Maybe defaulting to a search interface is a cop-out:
Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.
Monday, June 27th, 2022
Everything old is new again:
In our current “information age,” or so the story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways.
But the idea that modern life, and particularly modern technology, harms as well as helps, is deeply embedded in Western culture: In fact, the Victorians diagnosed very similar problems in their own society.
Saturday, February 19th, 2022
A fascinating four-part series by Lisa Charlotte Muth on colour in data visualisations:
Saturday, June 19th, 2021
Wait a minute. There is no real difference between the dataome—our externalized world of books and computers and machines and robots and cloud servers—and us. That means the dataome is a genuine alternative living system here on the planet. It’s dependent on us, but we’re dependent on it too. And for me that was nerve-wracking. You get to the point of looking at it and going, Wow, the alien world is here, and it’s right under our nose, and we’re interacting with it constantly.
I like this Long Now view of our dataome:
We are constantly exchanging information that enables us to build a library for survival on this planet. It’s proven an incredibly successful approach to survival. If I can remember what happened 1,000 years ago, that may inform me for success today.
Thursday, February 11th, 2021
SETI—the Search for Extra Terrestrial Information processing:
What we get is a computational device surrounding the Asymptotic Giant Branch star that is roughly the size of our Solar System.
Saturday, December 26th, 2020
Shannon is not exactly a household name. He never won a Nobel Prize, and he wasn’t a celebrity like Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman, either before or after his death in 2001. But more than 70 years ago, in a single groundbreaking paper, he laid the foundation for the entire communication infrastructure underlying the modern information age.
Wednesday, September 16th, 2020
I watched The Social Dilemma last night and to say it’s uneven would be like saying the Himalayas are a little bumpy.
I’m shocked at how appealing so many people find the idea that social networks are uniquely responsible for all of society’s ills.
This cartoon super villain view of the world strikes me as a kind of mirror image of the right-wing conspiracy theories which hold that a cabal of elites are manipulating every world event in secret. It is more than a little ironic that a film that warns incessantly about platforms using misinformation to stoke fear and outrage seems to exist only to stoke fear and outrage — while promoting a distorted view of how those platforms work along the way.
Monday, September 14th, 2020
A short web book on the past, present and future of interfaces, written in a snappy, chatty style.
From oral communication and storytelling 500,000 years ago to virtual reality today, the purpose of information interfaces has always been to communicate more quickly, more deeply, to foster relationships, to explore, to measure, to learn, to build knowledge, to entertain, and to create.
We interface precisely because we are human. Because we are intelligent, because we are social, because we are inquisitive and creative.
We design our interfaces and they in turn redefine what it means to be human.
Thursday, February 20th, 2020
The characteristica universalis and the calculus racionator of Leibniz.
The beautiful 19th century data visualisations of Emma Willard unfold in this immersive piece by Susan Schulten.
Thursday, November 7th, 2019
Timelines of people, interfaces, technologies and more:
30 years of facts about the World Wide Web.
Friday, May 24th, 2019
Ooh! A documentary on Claude Shannon—exciting!
I just finished reading A Mind At Play, the (very good) biography of Claude Shannon, so this film feels very timely.
Mixing contemporary interviews, archival film, animation and dialogue drawn from interviews conducted with Shannon himself, The Bit Player tells the story of an overlooked genius who revolutionized the world, but never lost his childlike curiosity.
Sunday, April 28th, 2019
What would Wiener think of the current human use of human beings? He would be amazed by the power of computers and the internet. He would be happy that the early neural nets in which he played a role have spawned powerful deep-learning systems that exhibit the perceptual ability he demanded of them—although he might not be impressed that one of the most prominent examples of such computerized Gestalt is the ability to recognize photos of kittens on the World Wide Web.
Friday, March 22nd, 2019
Steven Pemberton’s presentation on the printing press, the internet, Moore’s Law, and exponential growth.
Thursday, November 22nd, 2018
I just binge-listened to the six episodes of the first season of this podcast from Stephen Fry—it’s excellent!
It covers the history of communication from the emergence of language to the modern day. At first I was worried that it was going to rehash some of the more questionable ideas in the risible Sapiens, but it turned out to be far more like James Gleick’s The Information or Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (two of my favourite books on the history of technology).
There’s no annoying sponsorship interruptions and the whole series feels more like an audiobook than a podcast—an audiobook researched, written and read by Stephen Fry!
Sunday, September 9th, 2018
It turns out that a whole lot of The So-Called Cloud is relying on magnetic tape for its backups.
Thursday, July 26th, 2018