I lead the information architecture discipline in the design team at the BBC. It’s World IA Day. And this year I have no-where to go and nothing to share.
It’s a relief.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s an honour any time someone asks me to share ideas. But it’s an honour and a responsibility. And this year I have nothing.
The event comes around every year. And some years someone asks me to contribute. It’s nice because I feel like part of the gang. But this year I sat at home and thought “what am I going to say?”. The same old shtick? An extended metaphor? A joke halfway through? A callback at the end to give the illusion of structure… I’m afraid that won’t work.
…I’m even afraid there’s no point to IA.
You can’t architect experiences, people are too unpredictable. So at best we “architect” information… and most of the time that means we create information environments designed for the lowest common denominator. Where’s the inspiration and aspiration in that?
The digital world has so much potential. We can bridge gaps. We can connect people and ideas across time and geography and backgrounds. We can shape the world. This should be our time. Aren’t we in an Information Age? Aren’t we agents in a knowledge economy. But aren’t too many of us just doing the same things we’ve always done? We treat digital information environments as cheaper, more disposable versions of the physical world. And we use the same tricks to keep it organised… even though IA can make the world be so much more vital, dynamic and intriguing. But bound by apathy, a lack of ambition or a lack of curiosity we too often try to push people around fixed, decaying structures. Some days, some IAs are just building big, echoing digital cathedrals to a dewey decimal God — immovable, mausoleums where information goes to die.
I’m sorry if this is depressing.
But there’s a whole bunch of people out there now touting behavioural economics, persuasive design, nudge theory. People who think that people, and meaning, and information environments aren’t really complex, they’re just complicated and are there for the exploitation… And if you know what you care about and commit enough to it, maybe you can make people make meaning the way you want them to. Maybe that’s what the last four years taught us… But I’m not sure that’s information architecture, is it? Even if IA does work like that, I’m not sure it works that quickly… can it?
Information architecture is the slowest moving layer in any information environment, especially those belonging to big institutions or big environments. It takes time or many, many co-ordinated interventions. How many of us have the time or staying power to actually see architectures emerge? We just move on too fast. Or the organisation does. You wander into meetings, sleepwalking as assumptions around you morph and change and the architecture becomes irrelevant or overtaken by the weeds of faster moving parts of the design.
It’s hard to joke about this stuff.
I thought this day might come… I always feared that one day, the inspiration would dry up and I’d be sat in a meeting with no ideas, nothing to say, nothing to contribute. I was scared that one day I would be irrelevant …creative ballast at best.
Fear is paralysing. It stops creativity in its tracks. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe the fear wrote some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
As soon as you let fear in it fills all the space you allow it. Then it starts eating away like a virus at any creative confidence you’ve cultivated — so that one day, you wake up and the only thing you have to carry into the workshop or the meeting is fear… no creativity, no ideas, no questions…
Questions are the last to go. Ideas are delicate little things and are scared off easily by fear. But if you lose your curiosity then you’re really screwed.
Ha!?! Curiosity, that’s the theme of World IA Day. Maybe this is a contribution…
When I had things to say, one of the things I would say is, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say.” I’d type it out in Keynote, make it bold and give it a colourful background, as if it were wisdom…
But maybe it is.
It’s impossible to be scared and curious at the same time.
I don’t know if the parts of the brain are the same. Or if they’re right next to each other. Or if they need the same type of concentration. Or maybe they produce brain waves that naturally offset each other, like neural destructive interference.
Some things interact like that — they either contribute or disrupt.
Get a curious team together and you see the power of constructive interference. Ideas and creativity build up a momentum. Ideas overlap, expand, reinforce and rewrite themselves. Receivers and transmitters work together and you get a creative cacophony that you can tune, orchestrate and amplify.
That starts with curiosity. Ask a question. Maybe just to yourself at first and then as soon as you have the words to share it, you get it out of your head and into the world. Get the ball rolling.
But it’s not all momentum. You need people to steer things, direct the energy, orchestrate the co-ordination. That’s what information architecture is. IA is the orchestration of ideas so that they make sense together… building systems to make sense.
Information architecture emerges. And it emerges slowly. IA is a thousand tiny, co-ordinated interventions so that the systems we create are intentional — not just their individual parts. So even when IA is intentionally designed it’s not a “set and leave” thing. It takes engagement, enquiry and curiosity to validate whether the assumptions stay stable… whether the intent is rendered accurately and whether the system acts the ways we imagined it would. We need to stick around to ask when and whether and how things change. We often need to work in co-ordination and co-operation as architecture is the sum of its parts.
With a plan, an enquiring mind and the resilience to stay the course you can make information architecture. And it will make a difference to the people who inhabit it and use it.
It is hard. Most of the time IA is invisible and if there’s one thing people like arguing about it’s invisible things.
And IA is focused on the future — resilient systems that can adapt… and if there’s one thing that it’s hard to argue about it’s the future… it’s all just opinions, options and speculation…
I feel like we’re surrounded by metaphors of argument and conflict these days. “We’re at war with the virus”. “We’re winning the battle”… “it’s a war of attrition”. It reminds me that in a conflict, most people have a tacit goal of winning. There aren’t many people who can enter a conflict or a debate with a goal of learning as much as we can about the merits of the other person’s point of view.
Recent years have been hard. It’s easy to be overcome with the sense of senselessness. It’s easy to feel disempowered. It’s easy to let fear overcome your better angels so you’re left with the feeling you have nothing to contribute. Curious minds alway have something to contribute.
Conflict needn’t be a competition to be won. It can be a problem to be understood and solved. IAs are problem solvers. We are naturally curious. And the thing about curiosity is that it’s a tool, not a weapon.
I’m feeling more positive. I’m curious about whether anyone has read this far…
I actually believe profoundly in the potential of IA. And I think the BBC is the perfect place to do IA. This is the callback.
I lead the information architecture discipline in the design team at the BBC. We have massive, complicated challenges at the BBC. And our team is motivated by the desire to share information, education and entertainment with the broadest possible audience. Our team gets the chance to see their architectures emerge as they orchestrate their creation and adaptation. If you would like to come and join that team, please get in touch… I’m sure you’ve got something to contribute.