The Breakdown: In this week’s SXSW Q&A, we talk with our own Robert Stribley (@stribs), a Senior Information Architect who sometimes wears a Content Strategist hat (and is also a regular contributor to Scatter/Gather). In his upcoming SXSW talk “Everything Is Not Important,” he will elaborate (but not too much) on how to diagnose and address “information bloat,” as well as navigate the political waters that often surround the issue. “Everything Is Not Important” is part of SXSW’s Future15 series: 12-minute solo presentations, grouped into two-hour blocks of programming related to a single theme, in this case the theme is Content and Distribution.
Scatter/Gather: Why does the issue of “inflated importance” interest you?
Robert: As someone who peskily tries to straddle the fields of both content strategy and information architecture, I guess I’d say I’ve always had an interest in organizing information. I mean, I alphabetized my books as an elementary school student and thought it unusual other kids didn’t. After all, libraries do, don’t they? Anyway, organizing information, giving it structure requires determining whether content or features are important or not. Or at the very least, it means determining where those things are important. Because having determined something is important, that doesn’t mean it has to be plastered or promoted everywhere. As Ben Franklin supposedly said, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Experiences become simpler, more elegant and more digestible when we remember that.
S/G: In a Scatter/Gather interview you conducted with Matthew Diffee about his 2012 SXSW panel “How to be an Idea Factory,” you asked about the delicate editorial art of “killing babies” – a topic closely related to your own. Where are you these days with the idea of “killing babies”?
Robert: “Killing your babies” has such a distressing sound to it, doesn’t it? It’s a writer’s commandment. Some use the somewhat more polite version, “kill your darlings.” I think it’s sound advice, easily remembered, and less often practiced. When we conjure up a good idea, as writers, as designers, we sometimes have a hard time letting it go, even when it doesn’t really fit the need. So “killing your darlings” means letting these ideas go, even when we’ve become attached to them, for the sake of the greater good. In the context of my theme, “Everything is not important,” it would simply mean, you can’t be afraid to take a scalpel to an experience, even if it means extracting some of your favorite features.
S/G: Your talk inspired me to look up the phrase “less is more,” and I found its origins in a Robert Browning poem called “Andrea del Sarto (The Faultless Painter),” written in 1855. How has our struggle with this issue evolved (or not) over the years?
Robert: I think it has evolved, yes. Hit the Way-Back machine and take a peek at those sites from the 90s, jammed with content, no white space unsullied. The best sites often look simpler now – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, their complexity is better displayed. Folks like Apple and Nike have mastered the art of progressive disclosure; they’ve demonstrated how to lead users (or “customers”) to important content, instead of barraging them with all the “important” details at once.
S/G: What is your digital pet peeve in terms of “information bloat” and how would you fix it?
Robert: It would have to be the inability for people to trust users to find their content if it’s been properly organized (and tagged, another topic dear to my heart!) I find it most difficult not to roll my eyes when I hear someone roll out the old “Everything must be three clicks away” chestnut. An appropriately flat hierarchy is one thing, but a steamrolled hierarchy that treats everything as important in order to catch the user’s eye defeats the entire purpose of properly organizing information.
S/G: What are you most looking forward to at SXSW 2013?
Robert: I’ve never been before, so I look forward to navigating the SWSW experience and to soaking up new ideas, wherever I find them. Truth be told, I’m looking forward to some warmer weather and to eating my fair share of Texas brisket, as well.
Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.
Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Dice.com
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki