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Under the Influence of the Apple AirPods

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.

The automatic device-switching feature of the Apple AirPods is to me a stand-out example of good information architecture. Source.

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. Source.

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.


Sensemaking is empathizing and modeling, according to the Covert-Klyn IA Influences Model. Source.

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.


Placemaking is arranging and realizing, according to the Covert-Klyn IA Influences Model. Source.

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.

Reddit users describe their poor UX with the device-switching feature. Source.

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 four archetypes of an imbalanced information architecture, according to the Covert-Klyn IA Influences Model. Source.

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!

Microcontent Migration: Making the Move to New Content Opportunities

Microcontent Migration: Making the Move to New Content Opportunities. Josh Anderson, CPTC. 15-18 May 2022. STC 2022 Society for Technical Communication Conference & Expo. #STCSUmmit.

Earlier this week I enjoyed being in Rosemont, Illinois for my first in-person STC Summit conference. I presented on my team’s microcontent migration of an important company document. My slides are below. Download the PowerPoint file for all the animations.

There is no recording of the presentation. However, you can read the full proceedings paper.

Microcontent Architecture in Action NCCI

On the Road to Boca Raton: Our Microcontent Story at the National Council for Compensation Insurance (NCCI). ConVEx Tempe May 2-4, 2022. Precision Content. Trust in your content. Microcontent in Action.

Earlier this month, I presented at ConVEx 2022 Tempe with Rob Hanna. We spoke about how our company, Precision Content, built a microcontent solution for their complex content situation. If you attended ConVEx 2022 yourself, you can view the recording on the conference website. Our slides are below.

Elon Musk Laughed

Elon Musk laughing

Elon Musk is like a real life Ayn Rand protagonist.

While many critics of Twitter’s inequitable content moderation policies have proposed amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so that Twitter and other social media giants are recognized as publishers rather than platforms, Musk circumvented that less-than-ideal solution entirely. He did the thing that only someone with so much money that it constitutes a superpower could do. He simply bought Twitter.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s not the Ayn Rand-protagonist-approach. Howard Roark dynamited the housing project that strayed from his ideals. Musk, on the other hand, seems sincere about reforming – not blowing up – Twitter.

Among his proposed changes are several easy, low-hanging fruit that ought not to be controversial to anyone. For starters, he wants to “defeat the spam bots.” These spam bots swarm #crypto threads like flies. Worse, I have yet to hear of one that actually followed through on its questionable promise to return double the ETH sent its way. In a space where even the most sincere actors are regularly accused of scamming, the unmistakably fraudulent behavior of spam bots does nothing but harm crypto’s reputation. Good riddance, I say.

Musk has also signaled that he would like to simplify the verification process. I wonder if Musk’s idea for doing so relates to the most intriguing line in his public statement after his bid was accepted: “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by […] authenticating all humans.” To be honest, that line comes across as creepy as when the World Economic Forum salivates over global digital identities.

This is part of the reason why, as interested as I am to see how the Musk era of Twitter unfolds, I still have no plans to return to the platform that I left on acrimonious terms. In an earlier blog post, I described Twitter as a “trauma & outrage information superhighway.” That’s still how I feel about Twitter, and about social media broadly speaking. My problem was not so much with who the CEO was as it was a disdain for the fundamental design philosophy behind these kinds of products. Social media incentivizes users to externalize their locus of control – to seek psychological validation from the retweets, likes, and comments of others, as opposed to from within. This is not a healthy way to go through life. It’s so dysfunctional, in fact, that I predict that a decade or two from now, society will regard social media the same way we now regard cigarettes: addictive and terrible for your health.

Spend enough time on Twitter and you’ll also notice the way it starts influencing you even when you’re not logged in. “We shape our information architectures; thereafter they shape us,” you might say. I think blogger Aaron Z. Lewis described the phenomenon best in this literary vignette:

Before I started posting, my thoughts were more abstract and non-verbal — like blobs of play-doh floating around a zero gravity chamber. I used to spend a lot of time re-molding these amorphous thought forms into Twitter-friendly nuggets. But nowadays my internal monologue speaks tweet by default. Thoughts bubble up from the depths of my psyche readymade for the timeline, already twisted into the pre-programmed shape of a Post. I wonder if the algorithm is starting to interfere with the way my subconscious works. What if it’s filtering out thoughts that it doesn’t think will perform well online?

Source: “Inside the Digital Sensorium” by Aaron Z. Lewis

It took me years to wrest social media’s pernicious control from my life. I quit alcohol before I was able to quit social media. Arguably, I still haven’t quit social media – here I am, talking about it again, right?

Lord forgive me, but I’m back on my 🅱️ullshit: Twitter’s actions during the last election were, to borrow a certain phrase, “deplorable.” Among other things, they forcibly prevented users from sharing information verified as authentic by everyone from federal law enforcement to, belatedly, the New York Times. Information that, as a poll from the Media Research Center would later reveal, would have dissuaded 16% of Biden voters from voting for him had they known about it. That was election interference, full stop. The magnitude and significance of this crime still gets my blood boiling. It’s why I cannot – will not – stop talking about Twitter.

Musk seems to get it: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” I can’t argue with that first part, although I wonder for how long Twitter will get to be the “digital town square.” Ideally, the digital town square would not be owned by any one entity – public or private. I prefer the approach of something like Twister, a blockchain-based, peer-to-peer microblogging platform that fundamentally can’t be censored. As the last vestiges of legitimacy vanish from the felled titans of Web 2.0, I think it’s inevitable that these kinds of distributed, decentralized solutions will take over. But insofar as we live in a world where plutocrats purchase platforms, we can do a lot worse than Elon Musk. His tenure at Tesla and SpaceX has shown him to be one of the most capable capitalists in American history. Repairing our fractured body politic? That’s got to be at least as tough as sending a man to Mars. I’m not even sure it will be possible, but at least we’ve got a shitposting supergenius on our side.

Is This Half-And-Half Cream Expired?

Half & Half Cream with mug

The day is April 4. I extract the half-and-half cream carton from the work mini-fridge and prepare to unscrew the cap when I notice the expiration date printed at the top. “MA 14.”

Does “MA 14” mean March 14 or May 14?

I stop. Is that March 14 or May 14? Both months begin with the letters “MA.” Both dates seem plausible when I consider that it’s early April. This half-and-half cream might have gone bad two weeks ago or it might have two weeks of quality left in it. Which is it? Is this going to give me a tummy ache or not?

Fortunately, I have not exhausted the backup plan. I have used only a fraction of my power. I unscrew the cap and hold the carton to my nose. Sniff. Seems okay. The half-and-half plops into my coffee.

Afterwards, I ask my co-workers in the office what they think “MA” means. My Canadian co-worker is confident that it’s May.

Quickly I get to wondering about what a clearer abbreviation might have been. “MY,” perhaps? March doesn’t have a “Y” in it. Maybe a number scheme would have worked better – the carton could say the number of the month (“05”) instead of its name. But without context, that digit is simply data, not information. It’s too vague to mean anything. Even if the user knew that number signified a month, it is still probably easier to more quickly recognize a month by its letters than by mentally retrieving the other half of the key-value pair “fifth month.”

Then I remember that being a product of Canada, an officially bilingual country, the month abbreviations surely must have been carefully chosen to fit both English and French spellings. After all, it would have been even more confusing had the carton contained two month abbreviations, one for each language.

Curious, I later poked Google for anything that had been written about Canadian month abbreviations to see if I was right about the labels needing to accommodate both official languages. Yes, turns out that is indeed the case: the two-letter abbreviations were designed to contain only letters that show up in both languages’ spellings of each month.

Two-letter Canadian month abbreviations

“Canadian Month Name Abbreviations,” a minimally styled HTML page from 2014, explores the topic in a satisfying level of detail. The author ruminates on other possible abbreviations for each month and realizes, as I begrudgingly did, that “MA” was literally the only possible option for May given the constraints on the naming conventions for this information.

The author reverse-engineers the information architecture in detail:

The abbreviation starts with the first letter of the English or French name. (By chance, English and French always agree on the first letter. Not true with, for example, English and Spanish: January/enero.)

The second letter has to be in both the English name and the French name. Consider the month April/avril. It can’t abbreviate as “AP”, because there’s no “P” in “avril”, and it can’t abbreviate as “AV” because there’s no “V” in “April”. But both “April” and “avril” have “L” in common, so they can (and do) abbreviate as “AL”. (The other possible solutions: “AI” and “AR”.)

As a user of the half-and-half, “sniffing” for information about the expiration date of the product, this particular labelling scheme failed me. I was unable to discern meaning from the two letters I was provided. And yet, my Canadian colleague could immediately tell what that abbreviation meant. The fact that the two-letter code must accommodate both English and French was a “a-ha” moment to me, a recent immigrant from the United States, but it was obvious to her. A mere abbreviation on a carton reminded me that I was a foreigner.

However, given the bilingual constraints of this labelling scheme, I think the information architects at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did the best they could given what they had to work with. I put this new information into the back of my mind, and the half-and-half carton into the back of the office mini-fridge.

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