Information Design and “the World”

One of the most difficult things for me to get my head around in this life is how information — and the knowledge, opinions, values, and purpose underlying it — maps to the world it purports to represent.

Despite my predilections for the bizarre and the surreal in the visual arts, music, and film, I tend to be quite the literalist when it comes to things like documentation, user guides, help files, instructions, DIY videos, infographics, etc. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I have deep fear of ambiguity when it comes to many of the popular forms of business communication.

My fear, if that’s really the best classification for it, includes the confusion I experience when I attempt to setup and/or use a product with the assistance of some information artifact that has been designed specifically for the purpose of helping setup and/or use a product.

My fear (and yes, uncertainty and doubt are in there too, so let’s call it F.U.D. going forward) of ambiguity also includes the confusion and frustration that people experience when they attempt to use an artifact I have created to help them setup and/or use a particular product.

In fact, I can say confidence that the deep-seated F.U.D. that permeates my thinking about technical and professional communication is even more pervasive when I’m the author of the communicative artifact. I want so badly for the information I produce — from its framing, content, sequencing, layout, mix of modes (text, graphics, audio, animation, video, etc), and word choice/language use — to be so free of ambiguity that anyone who uses it to setup and/or use a product will travel a clear and literal path to their usage goals.

This is, of course, a fantasy. A myth. A shear impossibility. Unless, of course, the user and the technical communicator speak the exact same dialect of the domain language, and have more or less the exact same value systems with respect to getting things done in that domain, and that documentation is framed in a way to reflect the domain-specific values and shared discourse that those two individuals share.

But even in extremely rare scenarios such as these, it’s unlikely that ambiguity can be kept at bay.

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Expiration Dates, History, & Ancient Meanings: Part 2

This is a follow up to my previous post, which started out as a very mundane blog about working with my supplier to get credit for an expired (and soon-expiring) shipment of Greek yogurt, but which then turned toward an exploration of the word “chobani” and its implications.

I found my first clue that something interesting may be at work here when I looked at the wikipedia article for chobani. Apparently the company is run by a Turkish immigrant, Hamdi Ulukaya, who bought a defunct Kraft yogurt factory to launch the company in 2005. Before that he founded and ran Euphrates, and feta cheese company.

Shepherd tending a flockWikipedia explains that chobani is derived from the Persian word for “shepherd,” which translates literally into “he who carries a stick.” It is an Anglicized version of the Greek and Turkish word “coban.”

So, why isn’t it Turkish yogurt or Persian yogurt. It’s because Greek yogurt is in vogue. And greek culture (ha!) has been in vogue in the United States since its inception because it’s considered the cradle of western civilization’s intellectual history.

There is something going on here with culture (both human and dairy) and power and history. Is chobani a symbolic shepherd tending to its flocks? Is there some sort of religious undercurrent to the brand? Does the company use a portion of its profits to support certain religious or military organizations? Or, was the term chosen simply because of its historical connections to the production of food? So many interesting questions and potential implications.

Write The Company got some good explanatory feedback directly from Chobani. See here:

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Expiration Dates, History, & Ancient Meanings: Part 1

I had fully intended to blog about how helpful my KeHE account rep was yesterday when I realized I had some expired (and soon-to-be-expired) yogurt that I had just received and stocked in our Food For Thought employee break room earlier this week.

Four flavors (peach, strawberry, blueberry, and pineapple) of Chobani Greek Yogurt arrived on Monday (11/25/2013) and I shelved them hastily so I could get back to my design projects. Yesterday (11/27) during lunch time our two owners walked through the kitchen then past my office. One of them said to me, “Looks like you have a yogurt disaster in here?”

I realized when it arrived that it was a lot of yogurt to consume before 12/09, which was the first and only expiration date I took not of when I stocked the fridge. But apparently three of the other four flavors were dated 12/06, 11/25, and 11/25. But my KeHE rep replaced the entire order with more appropriately dated yogurt and credited my account. So nice to have industry partners who live and breathe the mantra “take care of your customers and the rest will follow.”

Then when I started researching Chobani, I found some extremely interesting implications in terms of etymology, culture, and history. I’ll follow up this blog with another post that elaborates on what I found.

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Grounded Theory Method for DCU

The Food for Thought employee break room project is an experiment in what I am calling designer-centered use, or DCU. As I conceive it, it is a research methodology that compliments user-centered and participatory design, both of which involve users, to some degree or another, in the design process. DCU inverts these methodologies by putting designers, to some degree or another, into the roles of users by having them
use the technologies they create to do real work in as authentic a context as can be achieved.

As Urqhart recommends in her assessment of the state of Grounded Theory Method for information systems research (citation), I intend to apply an experiential adaptation of GTM to begin building a data-driven theory of DCU.

In doing so, one of the challenges I face is confronting the implications of self analysis. That is, because DCU require the designer to be an actual user, the data I will collect, and which I will eventually code and interpret, is data I generate based on self observation as I use and evolve the system my team designs.

One of the primary goals of DCU as I conceive it is to help designers acquire deeper, more actionable empathy for users by becoming users themselves, far beyond simply interacting with the systems they design in the insular contexts of test labs. By getting outside the vacuum of the lab and into authentic and sustained use environments, DCU aims to immerse designers in their users’ domains of knowledge and action in ways that help them develop more appropriate communicative competences for negotiating the discursive spaces between and among designers and users.

One important component of the DCU approach is to develop a sort of pidgin discourse that is driven and shaped by a user perspective rather than a technologist perspective, such as what Johnson advocates in getting away from system-centric models of design.

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Receiving a new shipment

KeHE Gourmet has dropped their order threshold for receiving free shipping from $1,000 to $500, which means I’ll be ordering more frequently now – more like every two weeks instead of once a month. This should prove beneficial in terms of piquing the interest of employees with new items, and also with keeping their new items fully stocked.

Annie Chun's Seaweed StripsFor example, the Badia coconut water was such a big hit that I ran out a week before I placed my next order, which meant that we were without it for nearly two weeks since it takes KeHE about 4-5 days to get a new shipment to my doorstep.

Last night I stopped by for about an hour to start processing the order I received yesterday. I cracked open two packages of Annie Chun’s seaweed strips (wasabi & sesame) for sampling. One of my co-workers in support who was pulling a late shift took samples from both packages down to the support department to share a couple of her team members. I’ll shrink those out of inventory and use a “sample” reason code that I’ve needed to create for some time now.

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Brew It….And They Will Come

The company I work for has provided free coffee to its employees for a very long time, so those of us who are unabashedly addicted sometimes probably take for granted this kind corporate gesture.

Brew it...and they will comeThe unwritten rule has always been that the first person who walks in the door with a unmanageable hankering for java usually feels obliged to brew the first pot. But this dynamic has changed ever since I took over the break room operations. Now that our once standard employee kitchen has been transformed into a healthy micro-market, ideas about who should make the coffee (at least the initial pot of the day) seems to have shifted somewhat, even though the coffee is still free to all employees.

I think that because we now have a break room environment that is being serviced, there is this idea that the coffee should be managed by the same entity (me, the break room operator) that stocks the space with pay-for items. I’ve also noticed that break room activity hovers at a bare minimum until the smell of fresh (and particularly dark) coffee is wafting about.

Brew it….and they will come.

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Memoria & Usability: Visualization in the Absence of Artifacts

As its name suggests, ‘memoria’ concerns human memory. The ancient Greeks canonized the art of rhetoric into five essential categories, of which memoria was one (the others were  inventio, dispositio, elocutio, and pronuntiatio).

Memora: The Mediation MotherloadWhile scholars of rhetoric have given less attention to memoria than to the other four components of the rhetorical cannon (according to Wikipedia), the ability to memorize speeches was (and sometimes still is) considered an essential skill required to fully engage in the art of oratory. They did this by developing mnemonic devices and by creating visual maps of the ‘territory’ of their speeches that helped them visualize, and thus remember, the constituent parts of their argument and the relationship of those parts to one another.

Last night while I was creating my third food and beverage order since taking over the break room back in September,  I realized that I was inadvertently engaging in a sort of visual memory exercise that I had not done during my first two orders. I didn’t have access to my product database because I’m temporarily using a low-performance laptop pc that IT is letting me use until the fan in my pc is repaired. So, knowing that I needed to get an order prepared from home this weekend without having access to my inventory, I forced myself to improvise.

My mind turned immediately to the visual, physical structure of the break room as I attempted to “see” the shelves of the beverage cooler and the dry good rack. I figured if I could walk through my  memory of those spaces, I’d get a good sense of what I needed to order. Although my visual memory of the product shelves in the Food For Thought break room was incomplete (and probably inaccurate in some respects), I was able to generate an order based on my visual memory. Being able to visualize the “holes” where I had stock-outs (or near stock-outs) was just as important (maybe more so) as seeing the actual product, because those holes represented product that was most popular, and which needed replenishing most urgently.

Reflecting on the whole process, it became evident to me that Catapult’s new web-based version (to which the break room should be upgraded early this week – like, today!) has the ability to store images in the item record. This, combined with its browser-based environment, will be extremely helpful in terms of creating new ways (and perspectives) for visualizing the store environment. After, the data held in Catapult is essential a sort of digital memoria that users can leverage to augment their own memories, and the business decisions they make based on how those memories align with their culture and values.

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