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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Normalizing The Irrational Website


Over the course of my career I've been a consultant, a client and an academic. Worked in the private sector and the public sector. Done internal and external communication, branding, web, social media, mobile, and open data. But one thing has remained constant:

NOBODY WANTS TO CHANGE.

The funny thing is that people always ask for fundamental change. They say "we have to get away from the past."

But the reality in most cases is that individuals and groups are usually fundamentally wedded to the dysfunctional culture that they know.

I remember when we moved to New Jersey back in the '80s. Boxes sat in my living room for years because my parents couldn't agree on where they should go. I could have brought in an expert to simply unpack the boxes and put them away in a logical place.

But the hidden logic behind the irrational boxes was as follows: we disagree and these boxes are a symbol of our refusal to budge.

Until you get the logic of the dysfunction, you can't make a change. You see this on reality TV shows all the time, where an expert and a desperate client duke it out until the client admits and faces their problems and consequently changes their ways. (The show "Tabitha Takes Over" on Bravo, where hair salons get a makeover, really captures this dynamic.)

I remember as a brand consultant one engagement in particular where we did a whole assessment for a customer, then a report-out showing where they were falling short in employee engagement. They flat-out, angrily disagreed with our findings. They wanted an outside opinion, but couldn't handle it.

None of the above is new information. But when most people are confronted with this type of situation, e.g. an irrational organizational arrangement, brand, or web presence, they too easily jump to the conclusion that it should be "normalized" as per the way a total outsider would want to see it.

This is not the case. Rather one has to respect the healthy tension that exists between two things:

1) The organic situation - this is the situation that has evolved on the ground, the reality that has evolved as a result of culture, history, relationships, internal and external politics, technology and budget limitations, leadership and employee capacity, and so on. From a website perspective, it is also the reality of the relationship between the organization and its customers, the way the site is set up iteratively to offer the fastest connection between stakeholder and information.

2) The structured ideal - this is the wholly rational approach, the one that a computer might design, one that totally ignores the subjective reality of the situation, one that delivers an ideal that is interoperable in a massive communal setting. For a brand, the structured ideal puts the organization in a context of other brands. For a website, it sets the data free so that it can be aggregated into other settings where similar information is offered.

Writing in the early 1900s, at the dawn of the Industrial Age, the sociologist Georg Simmel called this tension "the tragedy of modern culture." He leaned toward the organic, arguing that individuality could not survive in the context of the big cultural machine, which sucked up personality and spit it out in a watered-down pop culture format that all could appreciate.

Elsewhere, using Simmel's theory as a reference, I have argued that brands have to evolve by putting organic in dialogue with structured (or "subjective" in dialogue with "objective") in order to remain authentic while also relevant to the public at the same time.

For every organization, finding the balance between organic and structured data will be different. Therefore it is a grave mistake to apply the principles of information architecture like a blunt stick. Rather the key for all parties to have an awareness that there is a tension between organic and structured data, that it has to be negotiated, and that the boxes can't stay in the living room forever.

* All opinions my own.