As of the time of writing this, 5pm EST on Saturday, April 17, 2021, the hyperlink to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms leads to an error. The page is missing.
I am not the only one who has noticed this.
This is mighty convenient given the universally condemned new lockdown measures imposed yesterday by the Doug Ford government that introduce, among other things, restrictions on interprovincial travel and outdoor gatherings with anyone outside of your household.
Now, I may be relatively new to Canada (I moved here from the United States in 2018), but even I have read the Charter a couple of times, and I seem to recall one of the sections dealing explicitly with the mobility rights of citizens. And I’m sure that giving the police carte blanche to stop and harass anyone who dares go outside violates some part of the Charter. Hmm… am I remembering that correctly? I’d love to check, but I can’t; our government’s information architecture has crumbled.
Perhaps this is the red-blooded American in me, but I couldn’t imagine, for example, walking up to the U.S. Constitution display in the National Archives Museum only to see it empty and replaced with the words “We’re sorry! We can’t find what you’re looking for!” Government spaces are government spaces, whether they exist physically or digitally. Something as fundamental as our documented human rights should not be haphazardly “misplaced,” especially one day after those rights were effectively shredded before our eyes.
This is yet another example of the worrying trend that I’ve written about before – important places made of information treated with reckless negligence by those in power. “It’s just a webpage. It’s just a broken link,” might argue some, but that sentiment betrays a lack of awareness about how much all of our lives are increasingly lived in webpages. (Especially during a pandemic when the physical counterpart to a government space is inaccessible even if we wanted to/could go visit.)
Obviously there other places online where one can find the text of the Charter. I don’t need this particular webpage in order to remind myself of my rights. Nor does its disappearance from this website imply that the rights themselves have also disappeared. Contrary to Ezra Levant’s above tweet, it almost certainly wasn’t Justin Trudeau himself who broke the link to this webpage. It may be a genuine mistake that will be corrected as soon as it’s noticed by the Canada.gov webmaster. I can’t even be certain that the Charter webpage wasn’t missing days before Doug Ford’s announcement yesterday.
But that 404 page sends a message. Whatever the reason for this broken link, I’m left frustrated and worried, especially given the timing of it. In her fantastic book How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody, Abby Covert writes, “The most important thing I can teach you about information is that it isn’t a thing. It’s subjective, not objective. It’s whatever a user interprets from the arrangement or sequence of things they encounter.” As users of that site – no, as Canadian citizens visiting the digital seat of our democratically elected government – we are entitled to whatever individual, subjective experience emerges from the content and context that we encounter there. It’s up to the information architects over at Canada.gov to craft a space that will effectively convey whatever message they’re aiming for in such a way that the message successfully travels to any user group, across any delivery medium or context.
As it stands today, the message I’m getting is, “Your rights and freedoms are gone.”
Jakob Nielsen wrote a nice set of Error Message Guidelines back in 2001. I think his guidelines still hold up, so let’s see how HTML Dog’s 404 page measures against them.
“Explicit indication that something has gone wrong.”
HTML Dog’s 404 message begins decently enough. “404! Page Not Found!” The exclamation points are a little extra, but at least it puts the relevant info upfront.
Then the screaming begins.
I can easily imagine certain older members of my family legitimately becoming worried if they read “Ahhhh! Panic!” Those words are so unusual and alarming. Accusatory, even. As if to say, “Look at what you’ve done.” People who don’t understand what a 404 message is or how webpages are retrieved over the internet might read something like “The authorities have been notified” and start to wonder if they’ve inadvertently committed some sort of cybercrime. The message declares that someone ought to be “sorry.” It’s all a bit… much.
“Human-readable language, instead of obscure codes or abbreviations”
I think the issue here is that HTML Dog is trying to be too “human-readable.” Normally error messages are indeed full of obscure codes and abbreviations, so kudos to HTML Dog for avoiding impenetrable tech jargon. I might argue, however, that the Justin Bieber reference counts as obscure. Billions of YouTube views aside, “Sorry” is several years old at this point.
“Polite phrasing that doesn’t blame users or imply that they are either stupid or doing something wrong”
“The person responsible will be fired. And cast out into the wilderness,” might be “polite” in the sense that it’s technically talking about someone other than the user, but keep in mind that most visitors will haphazardly scan the words on the page, not start from the beginning. If the words and phrases lingering in one’s mind after a cursory scan include “fired,” “cast out into the wilderness,” “this upsetting circumstance,” “Ahhhh!” and “the authorities have been notified,” that’s not what I would call a pleasant “user experience.”
“Precise descriptions of exact problems, rather than vague generalities”
This 404 message is as precise as it can be. It is true that the site wouldn’t necessarily know the exact reason why the error was returned, so it’s nice that it suggests three possibilities. It’s also helpful that that the most important bits are bolded. That being said, all the extra copy muddies that precision and might even introduce some of the “panic” that it sought to dispel.
“Constructive advice on how to fix the problem.”
HTML Dog is admirable for including a “What Now?” heading on its 404 page. Suggested next steps for the user are often missing from error messages. However, the non-hyperlinked parts of the bullet points are anything but constructive. “References: Refer to stuff,” to take but one example, is neither informative nor funny. And is the bizarre aside about Wikipedia supposed to be a pun about “roofing” because the site is called HTML “Dog”? Who the hell knows, man.
Jakob Nielsen’s guidelines are worth a look if you haven’t read them in full. Error messages are never fun to encounter, but I’d rather read one that calmly explains the problem and suggests next steps than one that tries too hard to be cute.
I had a great time at the virtual World IA Day Toronto 2021 event that took place last Saturday, where I was asked to present a lightning talk about finding an information architecture job in the current market. Since all of the lightning talks were prerecorded, I can easily share with you the video of my ~8 minute presentation. The local WIAD team even manually captioned my video, which is beyond awesome. I can’t wait for next year, but in the meantime you can check out my talk below.
Actions have consequences, no matter what. But the modern day architectures of information in which we carry out many of our day-to-day actions have a tendency to obfuscate and distort our perceptions of those consequences, and indeed even the true nature of the actions themselves.
This morning I watched a CBS News interview of Michael T. van der Veen, impeachment defense lawyer for former President Donald Trump. I encourage you to watch the full interview below.
van der Veen begins the interview by somberly reiterating his lack of disbelief that politicians will say and do anything, including doctor evidence. At around 1:20 in the above clip, van der Veen’s emotion begins to show, as he is faced with his first dismissive comment from anchor Lana Zak.
At around the 2:30 mark in the above clip, Lana Zak responds, “Let’s follow up with the point you’re making right now about the house managers as you say doctoring evidence—”
van der Veen steps in. “They didn’t deny it. I put it in front of them three times.”
“What I’m telling you is that they doctored evidence. And I believe your question says, ‘well it’s only a Twitter check and changing a year of a date here.’ They switched the date of a Twitter a year to try to connect it to this case. That’s not a small thing, ma’am. The other thing they did is they put a check mark on something to make it look like it was a validated account when it wasn’t. And when they were caught, they didn’t say anything about it. They didn’t even try to come up with an excuse about it. And that’s not the way our prosecutors or our government officials should be conducting themselves. And the media shouldn’t be letting them get away with it, either.”
Anyone who is familiar with the “Inspect Element” option on their web browser can tell you how trivial it is to edit the HTML of a webpage, take a screenshot, and then pass off the result as a real historical document. Or to open up Photoshop, prepare an image of an unverified tweet on one layer, open up a PNG of the Twitter verification check mark on another layer, then click and drag the check mark image into place in order to complete the forgery. UX designers create “mockups” of their prototypes and ideas for user interface designs in such a manner all the time. Once you’ve gotten practice, it doesn’t take much effort to create images like this. Click, click, click, drag, click, done. No big deal.
However, when a falsified image is presented before the United States Senate under the guise of evidence, it is a crime. Thank God for brave men such as Michael T. van der Veen, who still have the courage to stand up and speak the truth. It can be taken as evidence of our culture’s ongoing and accelerating slide into what conservative Christian author Rod Dreher dubs “soft totalitarianism” that his brave defense of the truth was unfortunately not without personal, negative consequence to van der Veen and his family. Terrorists tracked down van der Veen’s address and vandalized his home. As the local Philadelphia CBS affiliate reported, “Someone spray-painted ‘traitor’ at the end of the driveway of his Chester County home with an arrow pointed toward the house.”
Committing a crime used to, well, feel like committing a crime. Back before commercial image editing software became ubiquitous, doctoring images would have required, at the very least, “scissors or ink.” The deed could not be done with the same number of clicks as any other trivial action that we do all day on the computer at our regular jobs.
Andrew Hinton, author of the phenomenal book Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture, has demonstrated how a simple change in context can lead to a huge change in behavior. Actions that may have once felt obviously, tangibly wrong now lack the palpable, material feedback that our human bodies perhaps relied upon to inform us of the true nature of our actions.
Hinton illustrated this in a 2013 talk at World Information Architecture Day in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His point was how the design of Twitter scrambles the “ecological information affordance for action.” The difference in actions that a user must take to send a direct message (a private, one-to-one correspondence) versus a regular Tweet (a public, one-to-many correspondence) is subtle and easily confused. The “real-world” equivalent—that is, a person whispering a private message into someone’s ear versus standing in front of an audience with a megaphone—would never be so easily confused. An action that a user would clearly not want to take under normal circumstances in the built environment becomes much less obviously so when the same action takes place in an information environment.
Fortunately for those of us who value truth and facts—wherever they may lead us—this subtle manipulation of user behavior can cut both ways. Just as information environments can lead users to underestimate the ethical severity of their actions, it can also lead those same users to underestimate what they would need to do to “cover up” those actions.
Perhaps the impeachment lawyers believed that because Twitter management had deleted Donald Trump’s Twitter account and erased all of his Tweets from their site that no one would be able to fact-check the lawyers when they presented their doctored evidence. It was this carelessness on their part that, depending on your politics, either disintegrated the integrity of their other arguments or exposed the weakness of their entire case. All I can say is thank God for Archive.org.
Twitter is not the only tech titan whose information architectures obfuscate the true nature of actions that in the built environment would be obviously and tangibly criminal. The climax of the Reddit-GameStop fiasco that took place late last month was when Robinhood, along with several other securities trading platforms, actually removed the “buy” button from their interface in order to manipulate users’ perfectly lawful and reasonable behavior.
In a purely “real-world” environment, wresting control of countless customers’ financial assets away from them—against their will—would entail, for starters, a massive, worldwide information blitz to tens of thousands of workers at banks and other financial institutions. All of these workers would have to be informed (and convinced) why retail investors’ actions that were perfectly legal and acceptable moments previously must now be forcibly prevented at all costs. Next, arguably, these institutions would need to load up on security personnel and other measures as innumerable aggrieved and justifiably irate customers would begin to inundate these institutions with their cries of foul play.
However, in the information environment, all that needs to be done to disenfranchise millions of customers all at once is to highlight the few lines of code that produce the “buy” button, hit backspace, and ask the UX writers to draft some condescending fluff about how they’re keeping users “safe” from their own ignorance and unsophistication.
What we need is a renewed vigilance on our part as inhabitants of information environments. To return to the lessons of Andrew Hinton’s talk, the Venn diagram of “online” and “the room” looks more and more like a circle with each passing day. The resulting danger is that we lose sight of the consequences of actions.
We must not downplay or trivialize, as CBS News anchor Lana Zak and the impeachment team did, actions that take place online or on a screen. Those actions are no less “real” than those that take place offline. A crime is no less criminal whether committing it entails hours with scissors and ink or whether it entails “merely” changing a 1 to a 0. Notice it or not, the consequences are felt. Even if they aren’t felt by you, believe me, they are felt by others.