JASIST Information Architecture Column Feb/Mar 01

Architecture, Butterflies and Common sense - the ABCs of a profession on the rise

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, Feb/Mar 01

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 27, No. 3, February/March 2001, 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

Since the first column much has happened of note to IAs among us, including a successful, lively and very well attended symposium at La Jolla in November organized by Argus Associates (see the IA2000 pages at www.argus-acia.com/acia_event for details and copies of presentations). By the time you read this, a further ASIS summit on IA will have occurred in San Francisco in February. Clearly the field is thriving, at least as far as events go. However, one issue dominated all others between columns and it would be remiss of me not to comment on the biggest information design issue of the last few years- the design of the ballot. THE ballot, the butterfly, that not-so-cleverly designed information space that may have changed the fate of a nation. I am sure many of you tired of the topic long before it left the news, but there are important lessons for IA in the design, analysis and media coverage of that issue and they warrant our attention as we seek to develop this field.

Within hours of the non-result on November 7th, online discussion groups were dissecting the ballot's design, chat-shows were parodying its use, and every usability guru online seemed to have an opinion on the ballot's readability, visual alignment, and layout. On SIGIA-L it did not take long for the issue to morph into a broader debate about whether the issues surrounding that ballot and its use were really IA or usability concerns, with some members (correctly in my view) feeling that such a distinction was really not worth making, particularly in the face of such poor information practices. This issue of IA's distinctive role and focus surfaces repeatedly on SIGIA and I shall be devoting a future column to it, but for now let us agree that as information architects, we all feel we could have contributed usefully to the ballot and voting process design.

I am not going to deal with the physical design of the ballot here other than to say that in my view the design was unnecessarily complex for what should be a simple task and, where errors were induced, they were systematic rather than random. Many postings eloquently articulated these issues in detail. What is more insightful I believe is the response to the design problem that has been witnessed from within the design professions, the broader public and the media.

Practically everyone in the IA/HCI fields who commented on the design pointed to the same design flaws, though in the manner of all expert evaluations, the terms used to describe these flaws varied. No real surprises here but it begs the question of why such obvious flaws were never caught in advance. It has always been the case that design evaluations after the fact seem to show some 'obvious' errors that were somehow missed. Obvious or not (and I am inclined to think that even the present example contains a hint of folks being 'wise after the fact') a small dose of evaluation earlier on in the design process would have raised some red flags before the ballot was let loose. That all parties apparently examined and agreed to this design in advance only confirms what evaluation specialists have been saying for years -- understanding the user response to a design is not just a matter of common-sense. Evaluation needs to be built in to a design process and strong evaluation requires skilled professionals to conduct it. Common-sense examination by people not trained or well-versed in user issues is clearly not enough, no matter how motivated the inspector. If we learn nothing else from this episode, IAs and related professionals should drive this point home.

This is only one important lesson however. Flawed information designs surround us but users often muddle through, perhaps losing some efficiency, surely suffering lower satisfaction from the interaction, and inevitably completing tasks in a manner that is not ideal. Such is life, and users seem pretty tolerant of technologies if they are good enough for our purposes. In the voting scenario however, the luxury of muddling though was denied many users. News accounts indicated that confused users were often denied a chance to correct their 'errors', the context of use was manned by key stakeholders who allegedly provided no undo feature, a form of interaction that would rightly infuriate any user of current information technology. Beyond the physical interface to any information space lurks a context of use which can shape and influence acceptance and use. Worryingly, I have not heard many in the IA communities discuss this issue when analyzing the ballot design. Could this be a further consequence of narrowing our view of what is really within the remit of IAs and what lies without?

Beyond the professional interest groups, the ballot design was much discussed and dissected. The Sunday edition of the New York Times immediately after the election contained an article on the design's impact on voters and even presented an improved version proposed within hours by a local design company. Such media coverage of design issues is rare and in many ways we should be grateful for the exposure provided. User confusion, usability, readability, and user-centered design were common phrases for awhile in news reports and for a brief few days there was a 'call-to-arms' thread in relevant lists urging interaction designers and IA's to make their voices heard. The Usability Professionals Association even issued a public statement on the topic (see www.upassoc.org) claiming that the problems could easily have been avoided.

But just how easy would it have been? Making others aware of just what we do as professionals has always proved more difficult than it would appear. Most media commentators felt the design problems were obvious (and did anyone articulate anything to contradict that?), and a well known NPR journalist was quoted as saying that when it came to voter errors, there was no accounting for user stupidity. Sound familiar? Evaluation is an exercise in common-sense and if errors occur it is probably the user's fault! Is this the message we really want people to take from this windfall of publicity? If the problems were so simple to cure, who needs IAs?

The limitations of the dialog on the issue were never more apparent than the treatment given to the statistical analyses of voter patterns which purported to show that the distribution of votes in locations with the questionable ballot were highly improbable. Ah but you can prove anything with statistics can't you? In comparison to the layout issue, the statisticians were barely heard, never mind understood. Results from a Canadian test indicated that the ballot design really did make it harder to vote for a certain candidate. This study, conducted within days of the election, was hungrily consumed on the newsgroups and the press, where no doubt many readers wished they had thought of doing it first. But why didn't anyone ask how valid this was? Where does one find participants in that window of time unsullied by the news from Florida?

There are some important lessons to learn, and they require us to educate the public more on what we can offer by way of design. A little less concern with defining such issues in or out of IA, and more with showing a unified front on the design issues that matter to real people would be a start. IA is about design, and design impacts people, at the task level, the context level and the social level. Understanding and predicting this impact is not simply a matter of common-sense but a matter of theory and method. Before the memories of the butterfly ballot fade, we would do well to remind politicians, working groups on election reform, and the media of this. In so doing, IAs must work on improving our own communication of these ideas to make them more comprehensible to the rest of the world.

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