Capturing and Categorizing Online Information Resources

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A column by Janet M. Six
August 18, 2014

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses how they capture and categorize information that comes from many different sources for easy access later on.

The Internet provides so much information that we can drown in it! Professionals in cutting-edge fields like user experience must stay up to date with the most recent advances in their fields. While having easy access to all of this information on the Internet is great, it can also be overwhelming! How can we organize this large volume of information so it’s useful to us?

Each month in Ask UXmatters, our experts provide answers to our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—Web Design and UX Manager at Royal London; UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor; UXmatters columnist

Q: UX professionals read and learn from resources such as books, Web magazines, blog posts, discussions on mailing lists, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Often, they tag these information resources to read them later, using tools like Delicious, Evernote, and Google Docs. How can UX professionals best categorize such information for easy access later on?—from a UXmatters reader

“Good question!” exclaims Peter. “I think your question highlights something important: there is no shortage of information on any topic. But being able to recall the useful stuff at the right time is key.

Sketching and Prototyping Design Ideas

“Your question is pretty broad, so for the sake of clarity, I’m going to focus on a possible subset: design ideas,” continues Peter. “My first filter is normally to read about and reflect on an idea. Does it have merit? How can I challenge it? Is it relevant to anything I’m working on or just a nifty idea? If a design idea passes this first filter, I tend to do two things:

  1. I write the idea down in a notebook of design elements. There’s no index or categorization scheme for my notebooks—I have several—and this is intentional. I like to flick through the notebooks when I’m feeling designer’s block to get my creative juices flowing again. However, I do usually capture URLs or other notes to give me more information about the idea and its source. I also find that the process of sketching out a design idea helps me to remember it.
  2. The other thing that I do if I really like a design idea is to put it into my own personal Axure widget library. Later on, this makes it easy for me to use the idea in a design that I’m working on.

“But, the way you capture design ideas is a personal thing. Whatever works best for you is the way to go. Maybe a range of techniques will work for you. Try different approaches for a couple of weeks at a time and see how you feel about them. Then come back and share your own thoughts in the comments!”

Bringing Your Information Resources with You

I’ve created many Gmail directories to categorize links to interesting Web sites and articles. Sometimes I add annotations; sometimes, not. Like Peter, I like to look at these links when I need to get past a block. One of my favorite benefits of this approach is that I can get access to my collection of links on my phone, so I have my personal encyclopedia of design ideas with me wherever I go.

Keeping A Digital Scrapbook

“In addition to keeping track of information resources that facilitate learning throughout our UX careers—such as UXmatters—many designers like to keep the equivalent of a digital scrapbook of design ideas,” replies Pabini. “Many now use Pinterest for this purpose. For those of us who write about design, it’s necessary to capture and annotate screenshots of useful examples whenever we find them. Because applications and Web sites change fairly often, we may not get another opportunity to do so.

“I prefer to capture all of these resources digitally, and tools for capturing digital information have never been better. Organizing information resources and design examples hierarchically works best for me. To keep track of all these resources, I need to exercise my information architecture skills, give categories of information labels that provide good information scent, and create unambiguous hierarchies that are easy to extend. This applies whether organizing bookmarks, documents, or notes.

“When capturing information from the Web, I use a combination of Google Chrome, Google Drive, and Evernote, working primarily on my iPad. But since I can easily keep all three tools in sync across all of my computing devices, I can capture and access information from whatever device I’m currently using.

“Google Chrome is by far the best browser for iOS devices. It lets me open as many tabs as I want and has a great bookmarking feature. In most respects, it’s easy to create, organize, and use bookmarks in Chrome. However, Chrome’s most annoying deficiency is its lack of the ability to collapse and expand folders when you’re selecting a category in which to place a new bookmark. This makes navigating lists of bookmarks comprising many categories unnecessarily difficult. Chrome also lets me print pages as PDFs to Google Drive. When this works, it’s great. Unfortunately, this process fails quite often.

“Google Drive lets me open my PDFs in a variety of apps, including Evernote where I can then save them. It’s also easy to get screen captures and photos that I’ve taken on my iPad or iPhone into Evernote. iBooks lets me copy passages of text from ebooks, which I can then paste into Evernote. For the Mac version of Chrome, there’s an extension, Evernote Web Clipper, that lets me capture and annotate clippings from Web pages—whether entire articles, snippets, images, or just links. Saving all of these information resources in Evernote lets me keep all of my information for a project in one place. In Evernote, I can create notes, organize them by adding them to specific notebooks, and for complex projects, organize notebooks into stacks. I do sometimes wish for another level of hierarchy in Evernote—the equivalent of sections in a notebook.

“While this level of effort is worthwhile only for information that is important to a project that I’m working on, this workflow is quite efficient. However, in many cases, capturing bookmarks is enough. The one capability that I wish Chrome’s bookmarking feature had would be the ability to save specific folders of bookmarks as lists of links, so I could easily share them with colleagues and UXmatters readers. This is just the sort of thing that computers can do much more efficiently than people. But there’s no way at all to export bookmarks on my iPad, and the closest Chrome for the Mac can come to doing this is exporting all of my bookmarks to an HTML file, which I can then edit to create lists of links. Well, at least there’s a way…

“Can any of you offer tips that would help me to improve on this approach to capturing information? What approach do you prefer? What are your favorite tools? Please contribute your ideas in the comments.”

Curating Only the Content That You Need

“We should simplify the process of learning as much as possible,” answers Jordan. “We should strive to spend as much of our time learning as possible—and the least time possible sorting and processing the information that we want to learn. Here’s an example: Emily is a brilliant strategist with whom I used to work. She spent all of her free time browsing the Internet, finding interesting articles, blog posts, and news. After observing her for a few minutes, I realized that she wasn’t actually reading anything—just saving articles to read later on. By the end of the day, she’d compiled dozens of articles and added dozens of tags, and although she did this quickly, she’d read nothing but headlines. I asked Emily to show me her reading list, and it was full of unread articles.

“In such a case, best intentions fall flat. Although there are some diligent UX professionals out there who read, learn, and re-access information in a regular way; a large majority spend hours categorizing content that they will never read—or even glance at again. I call these people grocery-shopper students—and call people like myself restaurant-selecting students. The grocery-shopper student spends time—sometimes significant amounts of time—shopping for all of the stuff they think they might need in the foreseeable future. Their goal is to store general information and use it in the future, as needed. As more of a restaurant-seeking student, I instead find information that I want to read based on my present circumstances and consume it immediately.

“Both grocery shoppers and restaurant seekers share a common goal: to feed their information needs. However, they do not share the same process for achieving that goal. When it comes to feeding their bodies, grocery shoppers make lists, do research, and clip coupons; while many restaurant seekers look for reviews, great locations, and atmosphere. These kinds of differences exist in the grocery-shopper student and restaurant-seeking student as well.

“While grocery-shopper students may spend significant time finding, tagging, and saving information they want to learn; restaurant-seeking students find the information they want and immediately consume it. So there isn’t any need to save it. That said, I always share any information that I find particularly insightful through a few different social networks. Since almost every social network has a way to search through the information that I’ve shared, I can re-access any information that I’ve previously consumed and shared.

“When I receive a new insight or get turned on to a new perspective, I generally want to explore it in greater depth. In those cases, I write—taking what I’ve learned and synthesizing the new information and what I’d previously known into an article or blog post that expresses my understanding of the entire subject. These articles and posts instigate what are essentially peer reviews. People correct me when I’m wrong and expand my understanding further when I’m on the right track.

“My advice is to first seek to understand information, then categorize only what you understand. Spending time categorizing content with general tags—like #ux, #contentstrategy, #navigationdesign, #responsivedesign, and so on—seems like a duplication of effort from my perspective. If you save or share articles that you understand, you can then use any search tool—for example, Google—when you need to find an article because you need a really great diagram, a reference, or exact phraseology.

“Anyone can write a blog, so determining the quality of each individual post is key,” concludes Jordan. “I don’t rely solely on editorial teams to vet and produce high-quality content and often find the highest-quality content on individual’s blogs. While great posts may be few and far between, every now and then passionate individuals write the most mind-blowing posts. Magazines like The Huffington Post and Harvard Business Review often have such convoluted and congested editorial processes in place that they end up developing in-bred, myopic groups of regular contributors who often just repeat the same things over and over.”

Searching for Information: A Happy Medium

“I love Jordan’s characterizations of grocery-shopper students and restaurant-seeking students,” responds Pabini. “They’re very apt. But I’d like to suggest that there’s something between those two extremes—albeit closer to a restaurant seeker. Perhaps I could characterize this happy medium as a restaurant-dining student with take-away leftovers.

“While it’s always a quest for specific information that I need for a project that prompts me to search for information on the Web, in seeking that information, I often stumble upon valuable information that isn’t immediately pertinent. While I read enough to determine a resource’s value, I may not have time to read the entire article or blog post. (Although, with what passes for reading on the Web these days, that may be a deeper read than many would ever give an article.) When I find a valuable article, I bookmark it and, if it’s a really valuable keeper, I may even save it to read offline.

“It’s not always easy to find things again. The Web is constantly changing. Some things are good enough to keep and read again and again—just like our favorite books—either because they’re great references or inspiring reads.

“When searching for information on the Web, I use Google. Rarely do I use site search, because I want the best information that’s available anywhere on the Web. Of course, I determine for myself whether an article or post is valuable to me and worth my time, as we all should. When I find a good resource, I’m likely to follow any links that it includes as well. There are certain information resources—whether magazines, blogs, or reference sites—that I trust more than others—as I hope you trust UXmatters—so, when searching, I’m more likely to follow a link to one of those sites when it turns up on the first page of search results. But, on occasion, I’ve had to dig many, many pages deep in the results to find just the right piece of information—perhaps 20 or even 40 pages deep. When that happens, I always create a bookmark because I never, ever want to have to try to find that same piece of information again!” 

Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixAs Principal of Lone Star Interaction Design in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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