Monday, August 6, 2012

The Star Wars Pointer Scene and Information Architecture

Have you ever noticed that a lot of movies that win the accolades of film critics are often difficult to follow? Many of them do poorly at the box office. But why is this so if they are so "good" according to the experts?

One of the key reasons for the success of the Star Wars films is George Lucas' ability to tell a compelling story in a way the masses can understand. The experts often don't think these stories are that sophisticated. But what really matters is that people can grasp and even identify with the story. This is what I call "understandability."
understandability—the degree to which information is easily understood by the intended audience.

We are going somewhere with this post. First we'll look at why understandability matters, then what the pointer scene is, and finally how we apply it to information architecture.

Why understandability matters

So what does it really mean to be "sophisticated"?

In antiquity, a sophist was a teacher (the term comes from the Greek word sophia, meaning "wisdom"). Over time, the sophists became more interested in how cleverly expert they sounded than in the soundness of their teachings (or whether they believed their own arguments). They were the world's first lawyers, after all.
sophist—a teacher or lawyer in ancient times.

The authors of the books that constitute the Christian New Testament penned their writings in common language. They used Koine ("common") Greek, the lingua franca of the first century, instead of the more "sophisticated" Attic Greek. The Bible was later translated into Latin, and the widely used version was the Vulgate (which also means "common"). Unfortunately, the Bible was frozen in that form for centuries after its language became "uncommon" for the vast majority of people who sought to live by it.

accessibility—the degree to which information is accessible by as many people as possible.
usability—the degree to which information and information formats are easily usable and learnable.
One of the major issues of the Protestant Reformation was the desire to translate the Bible into the common languages of the people (German, for example). This could allow them to read the story for themselves rather than relying on the sophists of their day to interpret it for them. This dream was made a reality by a major innovation in technology known as the printing press, which allowed mass distribution of the Bible and other books for the first time in history. The Bible's content suddenly became accessible and usable by common people everywhere. Again. While theological understandability is the subject of much debate, the fact remains that the authors intended their content to be understood by their audiences.

The Bible itself addresses the issue of sophists that complicate things with their "wisdom":
ποῦ σοφός; ποῦ γραμματεύς; ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου; οὐχὶ ἐμώρανεν ὁ θεὸς τὴν σοφίαν τοῦ κόσμου;
You're probably saying to yourself "That's all Greek to me!" And you'd be right, of course. It is Greek. But that's often how our "sophisticated" information architectures look to our audiences. So let me translate the passage to make it more understandable:
Where is the sophist? Where is the scholar? Where is the great debater of this generation? Hasn't God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
This text is 1 Corinthians 1:20. (Read this passage in context at YouVersion, which does an outstanding job of bringing the ancient text to common people via modern technology innovation and information architecture best practices.)

The sophists of today still use their insider terminology and clever rhetoric to keep unsophisticated people out. But often it is more desirable to be understood than to be sophisticated. Mark Twain penned a pertinent statement about his own choice to be understood by the masses:
My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water.
So books and movies that are both engaging and not too difficult to follow generally enjoy wider audience acceptance. The same is often true of popular songs. Compare the success of songs with simple choruses, four chords, and a bridge to those that are very cerebral and complex. If you can't dance to it, it's probably only playing in a niche coffee haus in the arts district, where the sophists who hate Star Wars hang out.

The Pointer Scene

Pointer Scene from Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
George Lucas employs what he calls "the pointer scene" in the Star Wars films as one of his techniques for helping his audience connect to the story. In the Director's Commentary on Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (the "Digitally Remastered" edition), Lucas gives this explanation of the briefing room scene that is about 1/3 of the way through the movie:
This briefing room scene is what we call 'the pointer scene.' The pointer scene is where you sit down and tell the audience all the things that have to happen or are going to happen in the rest of the movie so they can follow the plot. You know, 'We have to go to the castle. This is the way we get to the castle. These are the dangers that we have to overcome, and then there's the prize at the end.' And there is in almost every movie a pointer scene where everybody sits down and says 'This is what's going to happen.' And in some scenes it's just very blatant. You know, they have a chalk board and a pointer and they draw a diagram and say 'This is what we have to do.'

Applying the principle to Information Architecture

So what does the pointer scene have to do with Information Architecture? The answer is the title of Steve Krug's popular usability bookDon't Make Me Think. And it applies to more than the user experience on the interface side—it applies to your entire enterprise information architecture from the organization of repositories to metadata management to business processes to faceted search. Along the way, your audience needs to have a clear picture of where they are going and how to get there.

findability—the degree to which information can be easily found.
Contrary to what sophists practice, information can be both highly understandable and very artfully presented. Let's face it: busy user interfaces, poor readability, too many unclear choices, and lack of findability really suck. But a clear path to victory is very rewarding.

Applications

  • Don't make me think about how clever you think you are. Information architecture should help your audience connect to content in ways that are clearly understandable.
  • Don't make me think about where to go next. Information architecture should offer "pointers" or signs along the way to help your audience get where they are supposed to be headed.
  • Don't make me think about your information architecture. Information architecture should be so natural that the audience is not aware of it at all.
  • Don't make me think about your lack of information architecture. If there is no information architecture guiding people to the right information, your audience will be painfully aware of its absence.
  • Don't make me think about what I should remember from page to page. Don't be afraid of well-placed repetition in your information architecture. Movie refrains like "I've got a bad feeling about this" and "Use the force, Luke" are very memorable, yet repeated to give the audience context. Likewise, repeat clear statements throughout your information environment to give your audience context. Unlike those sophisticated writing courses, you gain points for repeating the same simple phrases the exact same ways over and over.

Conclusion

So be understandable. Don't make me think. And remember, the force (of good information architecture) will be with you, always.

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