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Book Review: Intertwingled

November 18, 2019

Intertwingled CoverPeter Morville is a prolific author on the subject of information architecture and his writings are always insightful. As the coauthor of the “polar bear book,” as many people refer to Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, which is now in its fourth edition, I can think of few non-academics who could provide a more authoritative assessment of information theory and the practical application of information architecture to our lives.

I picked up his book Intertwingled at an IA Summit a few years back, after seeing Morville’s presentation. Having read Information Architecture and Ambient Findability and hearing Morville speak, I expected the book to be a good read.

The book begins with Morville’s arrival at a national park for a hike. It’s a rugged, little-traveled national park—one that is isolated and has seen dramatic changes in its ecological system, specifically in its populations of wolves and moose. As Morville relates the story, over the course of nearly 20 years, the number of moose had tripled, then halved. Experts had speculated that the predator in the system, the wolves—whose numbers had doubled in the same time period—might hunt the moose to extinction. However, an external shock to the system, disease, led to a decline in the wolf population, allowing the moose to recover. Now, global warming and new diseases are introducing new challenges to both the moose and the wolves, and their numbers continue to fluctuate.

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The lesson I took from this first part of Morville’s book—and the remainder of the book as well—is that our information experiences are part of an ecosystem. Many UX professionals consider themselves specialists—perhaps specializing on design for a particular platform such as the Web, mobile, or voice. Even those who have wide experience may narrow their focus for a specific project. However, this does not reflect the way people experience information. A person might interact with a firm’s Web site at their dining room table, on a mobile app while on a subway, and with a kiosk at a bricks-and-mortar store. Information is part of a system—albeit one that is largely invisible to most people—but a system of profound utility and consequence.

Book Specifications

Title: Intertwingled

Author: Peter Morville

Formats: Paperback

Publisher: Semantic Studios

Published: August 11, 2014

Pages: 199

ASIN: B00MOR4B0W

Don’t Try to Build the Perfect Taxonomy

As you might expect of someone who was a very early practitioner of information architecture, Morville spends considerable time discussing taxonomies, categories, and labels. He describes the folly of many hierarchically organized information systems. The example he uses is locating the Luggage department in a store. A shopper at a bricks-and-mortar store can visually scan the area for clues to the location of Luggage or might even be able to ask an employee. In contrast, on a typical ecommerce Web site, a customer must intuit how luggage might be categorized. Unless a customer is on the Web site of a luggage brand, Luggage is likely to be under Home and Kitchen or some similar category. This is somewhat confusing because people typically use luggage away from their home. This problem is exasperated in mobile contexts, where a hamburger menu typically further obscures information scent. While this sort of menu is a necessity on small screens, on a large screen, many would call it “mystery-meat navigation.”

The Dewey Decimal System demonstrates how an information architect’s outlook impacts that architect’s categorizations and priorities. For example, of the 100 numbers that this system reserves for religion, 88 are dedicated to Christianity. Buddhism gets a decimal point. While the system assigns major categories to topics such as Christian pastoral practice & religious orders (250), it is difficult to find similarly fine-grained topics in categories under Other religions (290).

In such cases, categorization becomes a filter—hiding information. Morville notes that even something as simple as the Facebook Like button forces a false duality. Like generally affirms something. How does one like hearing bad news? Granted, this may focus users on positive news rather than negative feelings.

So we come to realize that no single navigation system or information structure can be fully adequate. Therefore, we use facets and polyhierarchies, which give users multiple ways to find information.

Morville refers to Stewart Brand’s assessment of information structure and acknowledges the pace of change across systems. (For more about layers of structure, check out my review of Jorge Arango’s Living in Information.)

The point of Morville’s in-depth discussion of taxonomies and information architecture is that our relationship to information must be sound. Information is both structure and user interface. Well-planned information systems stand the test of time. While they aren’t perfect, they are resilient, flexible, and extensible.

Morville sees Netflix’s investment in a comprehensive taxonomy system—one that is professionally designed by information architects—as a key competitive advantage for the company. Even though the taxonomy is essentially invisible to users, it gives the firm significant insights into what entertainment would be appealing to which customers.

Feedback Loops and Project Management

In my opinion, agile has become one of the most misused terms and methodologies over the last five to seven years. Too many firms seem to take the wrong lesson from agile, assuming that iteration upon iteration without an overarching plan is the path to success. To be fair, waterfall methodologies that do not incorporate some ability to learn and adjust are not good project management. They are just a checklist with a calendar.

Morville relates some of the errors product teams might make with agile methods. When teams confront decisions, it is not uncommon—and not unreasonable—for them to consider A/B testing their options. However, this can lead to false positives because the results of such a test might be skewed by status-quo bias. New information could change a team’s assessment of the options. Plus, when teams rely on A/B testing, they might discard what they would otherwise recognize as good solutions.

Much of our interaction with the world and information is in response to how we cope with feedback. When an object doesn’t behave the way we expect, we assess its behavior, and try again. Such feedback loops harken back to Don Norman’s stages of interaction, but Morville presents additional context.

The Opportunity in Between

Perhaps my favorite part of Morville’s book is an insightful series of pages describing this idea: While UX designers are usually very good at designing boxes—for example, wireframes, prototypes, and taxonomies—we frequently lack the ability to design the arrows—the relationships between artifacts and experiences. While these in-between connections constitute invisible relationships between our designed artifacts, the in-between is where relationships exist.

Conclusion

Intertwingled is a thought-provoking tour of Peter Morville’s thoughts and theories about information architecture. In describing various information-architecture concepts, Morville weaves in many valuable lessons and insights from his career. However, the book raises more questions than it answers.

Morville’s book provides a very broad view of information architecture, along with some very surprising and interesting facts that only an MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science) grad would know about. For example, do you know that the average human body contains between two and five pounds of bacteria? Read Intertwingled when you want to be reinvigorated by seeing the world through fresh eyes. 

Vice President, User Experience at Metisentry

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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