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Architecting Stories | Information Architecture for Writers

The moving walkway is now ending. Please, look down.

Airports are hardly the place for peaceful introspection, with the bombardment of sounds and signals designed to rush you along to your next gate while convincing you to spend far too much on a bottled water and a bestseller-yet-terrible business book.

And yet, there’s magic to the madness—in the best airports, at least. Like it or not, it’s impressive how you can arrive in a new city anywhere on earth and find your way from gate A5 to E14 (a gate you only found by consulting the departures board upon arrival) in a half hour, typically without consulting a map or app even in a jetlagged haze. Instead, you go with the flow. The general mass streaming towards the center of the airport guides you without much thought; from there, signage leads you to the next terminal and concourse and gate almost automatically. There are exceptions and terrible airport layouts to be sure, but a combination of affordances and signifiers augment your reality and help you navigate an unfamiliar terrain without much effort.

That’s the beauty of architecture. The instagrammable rafters and glass walls are merely decoration; the forgettable and utilitarian entrances, hallways, stairs, and hidden conduits are where the building comes to life. They’re what help you instinctively navigate a building, find your gate, grabbing a drink and battery recharge along the way.

Picture a wide concourse, lined with duty-free shops and restrooms, with a moving walkway in the center and signage overhead. That forgettable ad for AWS might grab your attention for a second—but the sign for Terminal B or the warning to not exit unless you want to go through security again get quickly seared in your mind. And 99% of the time, you’ll know to push or pull or simply walk towards a restroom door without thinking about it.

Why? Affordances. The concourse and doors both contain affordances, things that tell us intuitively how we can interact with them. A long concourse with walkways down the center and gates off to the sides is an obvious way for us to walk; a narrow path sealed off behind closed doors screams “Do not enter” even if there’s no sign to that effect. Once glance at an environment, and we typically know if we can proceed or not (true both in nature—a wide-open field looks more inviting than one covered in thorn-bushes and vines). Door handles are often the same; handles protruding from the side of a door typically mean we should pull it, while a bar along the width of the door typically means to push it. There are poorly designed doors that break the norm—and risk you accidentally running into a door you thought you could push—but by and large, the norms hold. They’re affordances we’ve learned. There’s no specific natural reason we must make door handles like that, but we do, and so we continue to do so to take advantage of humanity’s general understanding of that affordance.

Signifiers—or signs, for a more common term—are a bit trickier, with both affordances to make them grab your attention and new information we must stop and process. Take the departures board or screen. We know one should exist and that it should be a wide rectangle with a list of flight callsigns and times, typically hung at or above eye level—all learned affordances. Once we find it, we must stop, find our flight either alphabetically or based on time (something we figure out automatically after looking through a few flights), then start looking for the next signifier: Terminal and gate signs with their own shape, size, and color affordances along with text and symbol information.

Could we find Gate E4 by walking past the first 4 terminals before entering what we’ve decided is terminal E, then walk past the first 3 gates before stopping at the fourth? Perhaps. Signifiers are a shortcut, though, a quick way to share information.

Both affordances and signifiers require simplification. A half dozen handles to let people open doors however they want would help no one; neither would a lengthy sentence describing terminal E. We trim down, give the least information possible in the most generally understandable way, and trust most people will figure things out.

Architecture requires a surprising amount of information. The broad themes make themselves obvious—few have trouble navigating a well-designed concert hall—but a bit more effort is needed to make sure fire extinguishers and exits and restrooms are easily discoverable.

And information requires a surprising amount of architecture. The way you know how to flip through a book, find a word in a dictionary, jump to the conclusion of a story all are thanks to affordances. The text on a book’s cover tells you intuitively how to open it, the order of the alphabet helps you know to open the first 1/4th of the dictionary to find words beginning with E, and the default intro/narrative/climax/conclusion order of a story helps you know to go 3/4ths of the way through an article to find the ending. They’re learned affordances. Or you can make new ones. Old dictionaries and family bibles include indentions to mark sections; newer travel guides might have a darker color printed near the edge of pages for a similar goal.

Or add signifiers—headings, italics, block quotes, blank space, page numbers, outlines, all things that help people find their way through your text. Put a table of contents in the front, a menu on the top of your webpage, footnotes at the bottom of a page. They’re how we organize—architect, even—information.

Information Architecture the study of how we arrange information to create meaning, to fight the entropy and confusion and information overload, to make straight the way. It’s how we take a random group of words, a few abstract concepts seemingly unrelated—pure disorder, the written equivalent of entropy—and turn them into something informative, instructive, new knowledge from the combination of the old. It’s how Wikipedia sends you on a rabbit trail of knowledge, how YouTube guides you through the process of uploading a video, why you know to check the bottom of an article for comments. Perhaps it’s not as involved as real architecture, but it’s a part of your daily life nonetheless.

And it doesn’t have to be exotic, the work of designers and bookbinders and Wikipedia editors. It’s the ordinary information architecture that strikes me as most fascinating, useful, needful.

Take a book. Your earliest lessons in narrative writing taught you to that to write, you first must break your ideas down. Outline them. Tell what you’re going to tell, then tell, then tell them what you told. Rising action, climax, falling action. Structure.

That suited your earliest stories—and generally maps the broad themes of most written material—but it never quite told you how to write well. If anything, it taught you to be repetitive and to stretch an otherwise short idea.

What’s actually needed is textual wayfinding, signifiers and affordances in your text that help readers navigate your idea. Explain unfamiliar concepts just as an airport adds detailed info signs near immigration lines. Some things need defining right when you get to them. Breeze past other terms—they’re the equivalent of gate numbers that need pointed out but not expounded on. Order your thoughts logically, building one thing on another. Don’t jump ahead of yourself. In fact, that’s the best reason to have someone else proofread your text—they’ll notice text and logic jumps that feel less obvious to your mind. And if there’s something you think readers may be partly but not fully interested in—a list of ten best items, say, where someone might read a couple of the entries—include outlines and headings to make them easy to navigate.

That’s the information architecture you need to practice every day, thinking through your content as though it’s a grand hall. Is the stage clear, or cluttered with random items? Do the decorations accent the stage and add to the ambiance, or are they distracting extras? Are the exits clearly marked, the seats ready for your reader to enjoy the show? Are the paths made straight?

Only then is writing well architected.

Ever wondered where web apps came from, why we quit having to install apps from a floppy (or CD, or even an App Store) and instead could just open the app right in your browser?

We did too. And over the past 2 years, we've read books, dug through old websites in the Wayback Machine, uncovered ancient discussion threads, and found five of the earliest web apps. There's an early online maps tool from Xerox, the wiki that anyone could edit years before Wikipedia, an online form and accounting tool that saved a university millions, a security too with a logo designed by Neil Gaiman, and the eCommerce tool that went on to power Yahoo!'s stores and provide the capital for Y Combinator.

Here's their story.

Transmit 5: Finder for the Cloud

For all the effort to kill them, files are here to stay, resilient as cockroaches in a post-apocalyptic world. They're just not staying put—that's all that's changed. Files of old would live their lives happily on your hard drive and floppies and CDs, rarely venturing further than your company's door. Today files rarely touch your computer, living instead in the clouds, appearing on your screen when needed and staying abstracted away in a server farm the rest of the time.

And so, you need new tools to manage them. Finder's designed for files on your Mac—with iCloud Drive spliced in for a bit of modernity. Windows Explorer is the same, with OneDrive baked in but otherwise still focused on local files saved on your computer.

The best way to use cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box, then, is to bring them local. You install their sync apps and let them copy their files to your hard drive—and sync changes back to the cloud. That's far from ideal, though. Today's SSDs come still come with less storage than the standard hard drives a decade ago, the tradeoff we pay for speed. And if you use cloud storage for personal and work files, odds are you'll have more than one Google Drive account—and the sync apps typically only work with one account at a time.

Thus the new Transmit.

Transmit started life in 1999 as a FTP app for the Mac, a computer that had been written off for dead but was finally showing a bit of life again. Steve Jobs had just come back to Apple, launching the candy-colored iMac a year earlier; the first web apps were still toddlers. And a tiny Portland startup called Panic built a nicer app to transfer files to your server, using the then 20-year-old FTP protocol (and for a bit of '90's computing nostalgia, you can still flip through the original Transmit guide for MacOS Classic).

Plenty of us still do it, using FTP (or, its secure iteration SFTP today) to upload CMS software and shuffle files around on remote machines. Today, it's just not the only option. You could just use an app like WordPress to power your website, with a pre-built install from your hosting company and a polished web-based uploader to upload files. Or you could SSH into your server and download your CMS files via Git. But in the late '90's, FTP was just about the only way to build a website. You wanted files online, you FTP'd them up. And when you wanted to watch a video online or try some new software, you'd download those files via FTP, too.

So Transmit found a home among Apple's dedicated fans, the true believers at newspapers and universities who kept using Macs after they were cool—and before they were cool again. That's where Panic (along with a handful of others, including the Omni group of OmniFocus fame) got their start.

Two decades later, though, it's far from clear most people need an FTP app. Some of us still use them with our servers, but it's far from a huge market. And increasingly, your files might not be on a traditional server—they much more likely might be in a service like Amazon S3 that abstracts the traditional file system away so you can manage your app or site's code and database and files in tools designed just for each purpose.

Which brings us to Transmit 5.

A Quick Transmit Tour

Transmit's mostly the app it's always been, a two-sided Finder for your local and online files. You'll have one file system on the left, perhaps your local files on your Mac, and another file system on the right, perhaps with the remote files on your server. You can drag-and-drop files between the two, check file info and set permissions in the Inspector on the right, and sort files by all the metadata details you could in Finder.

Try to copy a different version of a file, and Transmit will let you know which file is newer and double-check before overwriting as you'd expect. And if you're trying to find a file, Transmit can search your remote server, too.

Perhaps Transmit's best feature its Sync tool. Tap the purple, um, flower (I guess) icon to sync any two folders, complete with rules to follow symbolic links, skip files matching certain patterns, and more. It can even simulate the sync so you'll know what will happen when you click Synchronize as another sanity check.

It's a great way to keep your server-side files up-to-date, but I also find it handy for simple backups. I've got a folder of important documents on my Mac that I also want on a flash drive, and use Transmit to sync them both every so often. Perhaps that's not what it's designed for, but it's a nice little bonus.

Speaking of sync, Transmit has one other great Sync feature: it can sync your servers and accounts between devices using Panic Sync. Create a free account, and Transmit will sync any server and file storage accounts (yup, that's coming next) to any other copy of Transmit—so you don't have to add them time and again to Transmit on your home and work computers. Or, you could run Transmit on iOS—or use Panic's full coding environment, Coda, on your iPad or iPhone to code files, upload them to your server, and check on them via SSH—all using those same accounts Panic's syncing for you.

Transmit, Meet Cloud. Cloud, Transmit.

The headline feature this time—the real reason it's worth upgrading if you already have Transmit—is its cloud storage tools. Transmit isn't just for FTP and your local files anymore. Now, it can manage files in Amazon S3 and Drive, Blackblaze B2, Box, Dreamhost's DreamObjects, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft Azure and OneDrive, and Rackspace Cloud. Essentially, you add an account for the service you want, then can browse the files just as if they were on your computer—or in your server. And you can add as many accounts of each service as you want.

The features work the same. You can open any service in one of Transmit's columns, browse your folders, upload or download files, and search through your files without downloading everything to your computer. You can sync folders–between your computer, or between two different cloud storage accounts, with one open in each Transmit column. And you can copy links to files and set sharing permissions, depending on the service.

It's one of the easiest ways to manage cloud files. Instead of installing every service and syncing all the files to your computer, or relying on the web interface, Transmit makes all those files feel almost like they're on your computer. And since you can add multiple accounts of any service, it's a great way to manage files across a handful of Google Drive or Dropbox accounts.

There's only one tiny downside: If you're sending files from one cloud service to another, Transmit has to download the files to your computer from the first service and then upload them to the second service, and can't directly copy files between the services online. Would be nice to have that fully powered by APIs—imagine how fast syncing a Drive folder with Dropbox would be then—but for now, your Mac has to be the intermediary.

Speed and Specs

You might buy Transmit for its nice interface, it sync and cloud storage tools, and its nearly 20 year legacy of quality macOS support. But Panic's own Transmit site spends a lot of time talking about speed, advertising up to 16x faster speeds with Amazon S3 storage.

And, Transmit is fast—of course, depending on your internet connection's upload speed, which has the terrible tendency of being far slower than your ISP's advertised download speeds. Panic promises Transmit 5 is far faster at opening and uploading folders of mixed files—something that held up in my far-from-scientific testing. Uploading a 200MB folder of random, mostly small files via SFTP took just over 12.5 minutes with Transmit on a morning my 20Mbps connection felt a bit more sluggish than usual; it's closest competitor, the donationware app Cyberduck, took 30 minutes to upload the same folder minutes later on the same connection, seemingly taking more time with a slight pause before and after uploading each file.

The advantage didn't hold with uploading a single 20MB zip file—there, Cyberduck was actually around 10% faster across a couple tests. So perhaps Transmit isn't best at raw speed, but does seem better at handling folders and mixed files—the types of things you'll need to upload to your server to, say, install a CMS. And there, it's really fast.

So, both with its focus on cloud storage services and far faster syncing of mixed folders with lots of small files, Transmit 5 is designed for the way we deal with files today. It's a simple way to keep all of your cloud storage services together in one app—complete with multiple accounts of any services you use on your own and at work, say—and still one of the best ways to push files to your server.

Maybe the next time Transmit's due for an upgrade, we'll collectively have figured out something better than the 40+ year old file and FTP paradigm we're in today. But as long as you need to shuffle files around—and especially while you need to keep those files in an increasing number of storage services—Transmit's the Finder you need for the cloud.

Worried you'll accidentally not hang up on a video call, and then say something or sneeze only to later realize everyone else heard it?

Stop double-checking to make sure the call ended. Here's how to make sure your mic, camera, and notifications only work when you want them to.

Email apps are suddenly cool again. Years after Sparrow's untimely demise and a number of other false starts including the .Mail app design, there's finally a selection of cool new email apps. From Newton's Alexa-powered email workflows to Google Inbox' to-do approach to clearing out your inbox, and from Spark's nearly Sparrow-like simplicity to MailMate's adherence to plain text, there are email tools that fit just about any workflow you want. Even Outlook, the corporate world's email mainstay, is nice again, with an infusion of acquired talent and design.

Gmail and might be enough. But if you're looking for something different to manage your inbox, here are the best email apps of 2017.

G Suite Book

Email is such a part of our digital lives, it's something we hardly think about. And yet, if you want something beyond a standard account—whether to roll out company email addresses at your startup, or just want a personalized email address—a G Suite account is worth the trouble of thinking a bit more about email.

And it's not that hard to set up. In 55 minutes, Zapier's new book The Ultimate Guide to G Suite will teach you how to add G Suite to your account, import your old data, and get the most out of its core features. If you're using G Suite in your company, it also teaches you how to share everything with your team members, build an intranet with Google Sites, and more.

It's the quickest way to learn how to be a modern email administrator.

Email's simple when it's your personal account. Pretty much any email service will let you send and receive messages without fuss.

For your company, though, there's a lot more to consider. Do you need extra apps alongside email? What retention policies does your company require? Should you run your own Exchange server in a closet, or put everything in the cloud with Office 365 or G Suite? Or perhaps you should just use an email-only service instead.

We've done the research for you, in Zapier's new comparison of G Suite, Office 365, Rackspace Email, FastMail, Zoho Mail, and more. You'll find the very best business email service for your team.

Just under two years after acquiring Wunderlist, Microsoft has reinvented the to-do list with their simply named new tool: Microsoft To-Do. It's the core Wunderlist features in a simplified design that, indeed, focuses just on your to-dos.

Its best feature is just barely hidden below the surface: Suggested tasks. Instead of showing the tasks due today in your Today list, it starts each day out with a blank list so you can plan your work. The lightbulb icon on that page then offers suggested tasks—ones the app thinks you might want to work on today, along with those that are due or overdue.

Either way, you have to plan out your day manually—and that can be really helpful. I personally write down a list of the most important tasks on paper each day, to job my memory and keep focused despite what my inbox says. Microsoft To-Do has built that idea into an app.

It's not nearly feature-complete compared to Wunderlist, but it's a neat start—one that'll be interesting to watch mature.

Here's all the details you need about Microsoft To-Do—including a hidden feature to organize your task lists with emoji.

Some of your most valuable data lives in your email account. Even though a shiny new email address can be nice, it can also be frustrating if you have to leave your old data behind or switch between accounts.

Or, you could take everything with you. Here's how to migrate all of your Google data from your old account to a new one—email, contact, calendars, files, and more.

Ever wanted to make a fill-in-the-blank form, where you would ask part of a question and the prompt your respondent to fill in the rest? It's simple enough in paper forms, but online, it's surprisingly tricky. There's no online form builder that includes a pre-made fill-in-the-blank form.

So, with a bit of hacking, I figured out how to make my own in JotForm:

Here's how.