I’ve loved my Apple AirPods Max since the moment I first placed them over my ears. Overpriced as they may be, they are comfortable, even after resting on my head for hours at a time. Everything from music to Zoom meetings sound phenomenal through them. And when it comes time to shut out the world and focus, the noise cancellation is better than any I have ever experienced.
But my appreciation hit another level when I noticed with surprise that the AirPods could automatically switch connections between my Apple devices. Both my iPhone and MacBook sit on my desk, but I can rest assured that the Bluetooth connection from my AirPods will follow my attention and connect to the most pertinent device. If, for example, I receive a phone call while listening to Spotify on my MacBook, the headphones will pause the music and reorient me towards the audio on my phone. When the phone call ends, the audio will switch back to the music on my MacBook. It’s seamless.
To me, this is a stand-out example of good information architecture. In order to make sense of why I feel so intuitively and strongly that what I’m describing is not only indeed “information architecture” but good information architecture, I’ll attempt to analyze this experience through the lens of the Covert-Klyn IA Influences Model.
A Sense of Place
The Covert-Klyn IA Influences Model, first shown at the 2022 IA Conference, seeks to answer the question “What is the thing you’re doing when you ‘do IA’?” The answer that information architects Abby Covert and Dan Klyn provide is, “Influencing a sense of place.”
Information architecture, especially as applied to experiences that exist beyond a single two-dimensional screen, is all about creating a “sense of place” for the user. In their presentation, Covert and Klyn define “sense of place” as, “The confluence of architecture and information on how people feel, comprehend, orient, and act.” As I see it, my “sense of place” as a user tells me (1) What do the content and its context tell me about where I am, and (2) What can I do here?
The “sense of place” I had before I discovered the automatic device-switching was that only one-to-one connections were possible between my AirPods and any one of my other Apple devices. My assumption was that if I wanted to switch which device controlled the audio pumping into my ears, I would need to manually disconnect from the first device and then manually connect to the new device. I imagined an invisible and mysterious “Bluetooth space” enveloping myself and all my devices that would not know to reroute the wireless connections between my devices unless it received my explicit say-so. I figured this had to be the case since it would presumably be a chaotic mess otherwise – everyone’s Bluetooth devices would hijack each other all the time, right? Imagine being on a crowded bus or airplane, where you can be fairly certain many people at any given moment will be fumbling with smartphones and Bluetooth listening devices. If anyone could connect to any device without permission, wouldn’t that cause problems?
Once my AirPods automatically switched devices – without my prompting – I realized that my sense of place had been wrong. Because all my devices are signed into the same Apple ID, they can work together and easily reroute my audio. Other Bluetooth devices cannot disrupt me because they are not connected to my Apple ID.
Learning that one’s mental model is wrong might be cause for a disorienting or jarring user experience, but it did not have that effect on me in this case. The surprise was pleasant because the space I was in was more connected and feature-rich than expected. The ecosystem of devices foresaw my needs, empathized with me, and accommodated me in a way that surpassed my expectations.
The three devices that make up the ecosystem at hand – my AirPods, MacBook, and iPhone – are no more physically connected to each other than they were before my sense of place was altered. But now I feel like they’re connected, thanks to the experience of my AirPods automatically switching between devices. The designers at Apple empathized with my desire to move from one device to another without needing to clumsily disconnect from one device and reconnect to another. The unexpected interactions between these devices changed my mental model of how they work together, thus influencing my comprehension of the information space.
My realization that the devices within this ecosystem are arranged in a far more connected way than I had initially expected allowed me to reorient myself in space. Now I don’t have to commit my attention to (or even physically face) any particular device, waiting and watching for notifications in case I miss them. As long as my AirPods are over my ears, I can peel my eyes from the screen(s), get up from my desk, and walk freely around my apartment without “disconnecting.” I can redraw the boundaries of the “place” I’m in to include even the device(s) that I’m not actively using. I can keep my phone out of my attention because I know that if it rings, the ring will automatically take over whatever else I might be listening to.
My experience of this device-switching feature has so far been pleasant. However, I’ve found comments from others online who have actually expressed their frustration with this feature.
During the second half of their presentation of their model, Covert and Klyn describe four archetypes of imbalanced information architectures, each archetype overemphasizing two of the four “skill families” (empathizing, realizing, modeling, arranging) that go into creating the sense of place. I tried to identify the imbalance archetype that most closely matches the complaints about the device-switching feature that I found online, but I found this to be a challenge since each of the archetypes seemed to describe team dynamics among the designers rather than a sense of place that results from their information architectures.
The closest fit I could identify was the “Hobby Horse” architecture, which describes information architectures that “look” good but are not actually good in reality. (Maybe “perceived as good” would be more appropriate than “look good” here, since the Bluetooth-based automatic device-switching feature I’m talking about is physically invisible.) The automatic device-switching seems “good” on paper, but to some users it is an undercooked feature that rears its head at the wrong moments and disrupts the experience, lacking the nuanced logic to prevent situations such as, for example, switching abruptly to a family member’s iPad. This was not my experience, however, so I don’t personally see this as being a Hobby Horse architecture.
In fact, I’m unsure if a user who was not embedded in the design team would have the background information necessary to know which imbalance archetype influenced any given information architecture. Is this something that I, as only a user, can identify? This is an open question I have about the Covert-Klyn IA Influences Model.
After analyzing my experience, I appreciate the Covert-Klyn IA Influences Model as a way to understand information architecture as a sense of place – as an embodied experience in a real, physical, three-dimensional environment. Tools like this will only become more important as digital experiences continue to spill out of screens and across devices (not to mention metaverses). Of course, there’s a chance that I might have applied this model entirely incorrectly; I’ll send this blog post to Abby and Dan to get their thoughts, and I’m eager to see how other information architects analyze their experiences and creations through this model. Watch this blog for follow-up discussion!