At CanUX 2017 I gave a version of a talk where I asked ‘What’s the point of Information architecture?’ The quick answer is that good information architecture allows teams and audiences to get a higher degree of situational awareness — making the places they inhabit and move through easier to make sense of and make use of. They know where they are, so it’s easier to decide what to do and to do it.
I’ve now given various versions of that talk — and the more times I get to see what I say, the deeper I understand how I feel about the practice and value of information architecture.
Being an information architect most regularly asks me to do three types of thinking:
Definition: I form and share definitions of things by considering the “thingness of things” and the most useful separation into parts.
Arrangement: I consider relationships and form connections between things and their parts.
Exploitation: I play with definition and arrangement to optimise architecture and design to create coherence, connections, efficiency and resilience.
Depending on the audience I can use Dan Klyn’s definition of ontology, taxonomy and choreography for these activities — which inspired me to think this way. But in my experience those words sometimes frighten non-IAs, so I’m flexible in the language and definitions I apply.
Those four benefits (coherence, connections, efficiency, resilience) aren’t buzz words — it’s how I assess whether I’m having an impact and delivering the value that IA can offer:
Coherence: Is the quality of being logical and consistent — making sense. We create unified whole things by considering basic definitions and considering and describing parts. Things are meaningful and mean what we imagined they would because we are intentional in our definition and arrangement.
Connections: We associate and relate things to form connections. Connections enable goal completion and stimulate latent need. We enable discovery by ensuring meaningful things are perceivable and useful — we also intentionally hide some stuff to support meaning making.
Efficiency: We reduce cost, effort, stress and frustration with efficiency.
Resilience: Our architecture creates reliably meaningful designs across contexts. We can change the shape and adapt the information we present.
This list is heavily inspired by the work of Resmini and Rosati in their book Pervasive Information architecture.
When we direct a high degree of intentional design into the architecture of systems and products, we see those four characteristics. Taken together the impact of our work can be felt. We can take information spaces and make them feel more like places. Places are more inherently meaningful. They establish and exploit convention to direct and support sense making and interpretation.
When we’re not intentional in the design of the conventions and information that underpins our designs we create unintentional architecture. Sometimes this doesn’t have negative consequences— but do you want to leave that to chance? Information architecture creates a meaningful foundation on which to build designed experiences.
A fish out of water
At CanUX I spent a little while talking about my fish*. I’ve written about the fish before. But I don’t think I’ve described the balance and tension in the fish.
I use the fish to help me locate myself in a project. It helps me work out where I am, so that I can be more intentional in the things I do. If we’re having ideas or need a focus on definition, I’m probably around Mode 1. If I’m in a well-established product looking to evolve I’m closer to Mode 3. Development will see me focused on translating ideas into higher-fidelity versions of that idea — prototypes through to software.
By working out where I am or what I’m doing, I can also identify what I’m not doing and what I might have missed. In Ottawa I described the dialogue between thinking structurally about requirements and comparing that to alternative arrangements of technology and infrastructure. I talked about an equation with requirements on one side and our efforts to balance the equation by exploiting and building infrastructure on the other. I pointed out that you can work on both sides of the equation. If your pre-existing infrastructure can’t meet the demands you can both create new infrastructure or re-visit and reframe requirements to make it easier to balance. I’ve written about that too.
There are other dialogues contained in the fish. Mode 1 is in a dialogue with Mode 3. Sometimes in Mode 1 we focus only on our idea. We miss the fact that the idea will connect and be contained by other ideas and contexts. If I find that a team is focused just on their thing, I sometimes find it useful to force them into Mode 3 thinking to consider the broader, containing-context — or even their design in 6, 12 or 18 months time.
There’s also a dialogue between definition and validation. Once you’ve defined an idea, preferably as a testable hypothesis you can work backward and forward between definition and validation. Similarly, the balancing act between definition and integration might see you revisit an idea once the requirements of integrating it into a broader context are considered.
Whenever I’m using the fish I’m trying to understand where I am and where the rest of the team are currently located. I then ask myself, why aren’t I in any of the other squares, and what would happen if I moved into that activity. This helps me be more intentional in the activities I’m engaged in during a project.
Why I architect information…
Information is everywhere in creative projects. And this digital age has brought about unprecedented abundance and diversity in the information available to audiences — this is the information that forms opinions and beliefs. Information shapes behaviours.
Information is the tool we use to carve the present into the future.
As an information architect I care about truth, meaning and things making sense. Before I worked at the BBC I’d be on projects and be painfully aware that the IA of the e-commerce platform I was working on could make or break a company.
I knew that I could alter, empower or impair an organisation through the choices I made as I designed their intranet.
A map or a model that I sketched could unlock a solution in seconds.
But maps and IA can distort and obscure too. Meaning always has a point of view. Think about the Mercator projection map. We know that the choices embedded in that map enforces a perspective — and as you use it you inherit the meaning that’s baked into it.
Impartiality requires design.
Information requires architecture.
We know from research that audiences demonstrate limited critical reflection skills in relation to their decision-making.
Social trends around personalisation, content curation and social technology seem to be leading people into rarely being presented with information or stories that contradict the way they already see the world.
Few people naturally seek out or embrace situations where their own opinions will be questioned or contradicted. Few in our audience are pro-active in looking for a ‘new perspective.’ Commercial content providers don’t seem to be pro-actively trying to present audiences with other or different viewpoints.
We’ve seen the impact of a range of cognitive biases which lead people to seek out information that reinforces their existing viewpoints. As humans we all tend to notice things we’ve been primed to see. We are drawn to details that confirm what we already believe. We notice flaws in others more easily than we do in ourselves. Our brains are lazy and easily fooled. If we’re to be the architects of information and understanding then we need to help these lazy brains…
This is the point of information architecture — to face the challenge of making sense in a world that sometimes isn’t easy to make sense of.
[* I was reminded recently that many of the original ideas for my fish were inspired by a workshop created by John V Willshire of Smithery. John spoke about the mapping techniques the workshop was based on at World IA Day 2021, here: https://smithery.com/2021/02/27/zenko-mapping-inception-and-pace-layers-wiad2021/]