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About the Author
Jorge Arango is a strategic designer and information architect. Upon seeing the then–new World Wide Web in
1994, he left his career in (building) architecture to start the first web design consultancy in Central America.
He has since designed information environments for organizations that range in scope from developing–world nonprofits to Fortune
He is co–author (with Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville) of
Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond (2015), the fourth edition of O'Reilly's celebrated "polar bear" book. He is also a former president of the Information Architecture Institute, and speaks and teaches about design leadership around the world.
Jorge lives with his wife and three children in the San Francisco Bay
Area. You can reach him via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter, where he is @jarango.
Read an Excerpt
Chaper 4: Engagement
You walk into the kitchen with the intent of making a sandwich, when suddenly you hear glass shatter. You immediately turn toward the source of the sound. Your pulse quickens as scenarios play in your mind. Has someone broken into your house? Where are your kids? You walk into the living room to discover your son with a surprised look on his face and a ball lying on the floor next to the shattered window.
Fortunately, he's alright. You comfort him and discuss what has happened, and then take your phone out and Google glaziers.
You find a company that seems reputable and call them to set an appointment for the next morning. You go back to the kitchen and wonder, "Now, where was I?"
Thus far in this book, we've been discussing tangible ways in which places influence our behavior. But there are also more subtle ways in which environments affect us. One that is of particular importance is how they impact our ability to focus our attention.
Sometimes our attention is taken away by an exceptional occurrence,
such as the sound of a breaking window. This is useful; the ability to respond quickly to changing conditions can help us escape danger.
However, most of the time, we want to be in control of our attention. An environment that nudges us to spend more of our time there—or keeps interrupting us—would make it difficult for us to get things done.
The places we inhabit can either allow us to remain in control of our attention or snatch it from us for purposes of their own. Unfortunately,
many of today's most popular information environments are based on business models that incentivize the latter. The term used in the technology business is "engagement" the amount of time people spend looking at or interacting with components in the environment. Given how important our attention is, it's worth looking at how designing for engagement affects it.
What Attention Is and Why
You can think of attention as your ability to focus your mind on one piece of information among many so that you can achieve a particular goal. The sound of breaking glass offers your senses new information that interrupts your train of thought. It causes you to suspend your immediate aim—the sandwich—in favor of another, more urgent one:
making sure everything's okay with your home.
As you read this paragraph, you’re sensing information about your environment:
the temperature of the space, various background noises, the level of lighting, and so on (including the words that make up the paragraph)
Your mind is also prompting you with information unrelated to the words you're reading: memories of what you had for breakfast,
a plan for this evening's date, a reminder to call your mom, and so on.
Your ability to finish reading this paragraph requires that you somehow ignore these distractions so that you can focus on the running stream of words your eyes are making available to you.
This ability to focus our minds is an essential survival mechanism. Our remote ancestors wouldn't have lasted long in the savanna had they not been able to look out for predators. Their survival required that they pay close attention to their surroundings for new pieces of information:
a rustling in the grass, a particular musky smell, and so on. On the flip side, it would have been impossible for our forebears to hunt if their minds kept getting caught on whatever their eyes and ears happened to land on at any given moment; they needed to remain alert. Survival required that they be able to marshal their cognitive resources toward particular goals (e.g., steak!) to the exclusion of others (e.g., crane flapping overhead!).
Note how attention is closely related to the environment. Even though our mental chatter is among the pieces of information we need to sift amongst, much of what we focus our attention on are stimuli outside of us, conveyed to our minds by our senses. That musky predator smell is not emanating from our bodies (well, not from most of us) but from something out there in the world. We learn to recognize these stimuli and tell them from each other: for example, this noise hearkens food,
this one signals possible death, this one means it's safe to take a nap,
and so on.
Table of Contents
Contents at a Glance
- Foreword By Hugh Dubberly
- Chapter 1. Environments
- Chapter 2. Context
- Chapter 3. Incentives
- Chapter 4. Engagement
- Chapter 5. Technology
- Chapter 6. Architecture
- Chapter 7. Structure
- Chapter 8. Systems
- Chapter 9, Sustainability
- Chapter 10. Gardening